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Archaeology and history

One of a pair of Covenanter tanks, half-buried in the beach at RSPB Titchwell Marsh

One of a pair of Covenanter (A13 Mark III/Cruiser Mark V - built 1941-1943) tanks, half-buried in the beach

Image: Andy Hay

Titchwell Marsh is a wonderful place for wildlife today but there is fascinating story to tell about how the landscape has evolved. Visitors can see remains that illustrate the two major events that have shaped the landscape - sea level rise after the last ice age and military use during the Second World War.

The advance of the sea

It wasn't always open marsh at Titchwell - there was a time more than 9,000 years ago when this area was covered in forest and was part of coastal plain that stretched out into what is now the North Sea.

Flint artefacts from this Mesolithic era have been found on the reserve, evidence that people were hunting and gathering, probably following animal herds for long distances. It has been suggested that at this time they could have walked as far as Denmark whilst staying on dry land!

A wetter climate led to the formation of peat, causing the trees to fall and be preserved in the wetland deposits. Gradual sea level rises throughout this post-glacial period then inundated and preserved the peat beds. Today the remains of the trees and peat beds can be seen eroding on the coastal foreshore at low tide.

Once the sea level rose, the coastal plains were inundated and by the Late Bronze Age, around 3,000 years ago, sea levels would have been much the same as today. Archaeologists have found evidence that people were living on the edge of the wetland at this time so there must already have been a settled community here - it would have been a good location to farm the dry land and exploit wetlands for fishing and fowling.

Today the challenges of climate change mean we expect more coastal inundation and our engineering works will ensure the preservation of important wildlife and cultural heritage for the future.

The Second World War

These wetland and intertidal areas would have been exploited by human communities for millennia for hunting and farming, but it is the 20th century that has seen the biggest changes at Titchwell and left an indelible mark on the reserve that can be seen during your visit.

During the Second World War, the quiet marshes were turned into a firing range

During the Second World War, the quiet marshes were turned into an Armoured Fighting Vehicle (AFV) firing range and the coast was reinforced against invasion. Part of these defences would have included a reversal of drainage and encouraging flooding as a defence against invasion - helping to re-establish wetland biodiversity.

The main banks, including the Parrinder bank were constructed for firing practice, with targets set at 1,000 yard intervals. Today these banks ensure that freshwater wildlife can be protected from inundation by saltwater. Rare breeding species such as the bittern, bearded tit and marsh harrier rely on freshwater reedbeds for there continued existence in the UK.

The remains of a 'firing loop' where tanks drove up to fire at the targets is still preserved as well as pillboxes where machine gun practice was also taking place. Many of the islands in the marsh were built to house 'pop-up' targets for gunnery practice and today these are important for breeding and roosting birds.

Occasionally the remains of two Covenanter tanks can be seen at low tide on the foreshore, their appearance depending on the shifting sands. These two were probably used for target practice.

More information about these heritage sites can be obtained from reserve staff during your visit.

Metal detecting and the collection and removal of objects from the reserve is not permitted.