The fascinating history and archaeology of RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk.

We always encourage our guests to take a visit to RSPB Minsmere, to enjoy the peace and tranquillity and share a picnic in the company of some of the rarest wildlife in the UK. But did you know there’s so much more to this site than wildlife and nature? There’s plenty of history and surprising archaeology to uncover too.

The area now known as Minsmere is actually written about in the Domesday Book of 1086 when it was known as Menesmara or Milsemere. There is even a description dated in 1237 of Minsmere being an active port.

Abbey ruins at Minsmere

The south of the estuary was the setting for the original Leiston Abbey which was constructed in the early 1180’s on an island that was connected to the mainland of Leiston by a causeway. However, constant flooding caused by the sea forced the Premonstratensian Monks to move the Abbey inland closer to Leiston where you can still see the remains today.

In 2008 The RSPB was given £35,600 by English Heritage and £12,000 from Natural England to conserve and repair the crumbling walls of the Chapel of St Mary and you can still view the ruins from the footpath, although there is no public access to them.

This, along with the newer Leiston Abbey, are the only two surviving Premonstratensian sites in Suffolk. Recent archaeological digs have unearthed items such as Nuremberg Jetons – essentially a sort of Medieval poker chip – which experts see as potential evidence of gambling!

They also discovered a metal curse tablet. Common in the Anglo-Roman period, the author would etch a curse in tiny writing onto a thin sheet of lead, before being nailed or buried in what was considered a sacred space, contrary to the name, these were not always a negative, sometimes they would be used to write love spells.

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The chapel pops up in history again when it played a surprising role during the Second World War. Many rumours surround the mystery of a failed Nazi invasion at Shingle Street. It’s said that the British Army covertly added fortifications to selected parts of the East Anglian coast – laying a series of pipelines in the sea, just past the low tide line. These pipelines were pumped full of a flammable liquid with the idea that should the Nazi army set off across the North Sea towards the UK coast, the sea was in effect set alight.

These rumours were backed up when in 1940 it’s said that bodies in Nazi army uniforms began washing up on the shores between Shingle Street and Harwich. Some older Suffolk residents have their own stories. Whether these tales are war cabinet propaganda or true is the subject of much debate, however the strategical importance of the East Coast of Suffolk during World War II should not be underestimated, and the area was heavily fortified against potential attacks.

RSPB staff have discovered aerial photos of Minsmere taken by the Luftwaffe. These photos show that during the failed Nazi invasion in the summer of 1940 the mere was drained for agriculture. Therefore, as a defence against a tank invasion, a hasty construction of a ‘coastal crust’ of concrete complete with barbed wire defence put into place. The New Cut bank was wired and mined. Part of the area was designated as the Leiston Battle Training Area in 1943.

Minsmere concrete

A concrete pillbox and machine gun emplacement were inserted into the eastern end of the chapel to act as anti-tank defences, the placement would have meant the defences were camouflaged from the Luftwaffe’s view. It is now an important monument in its own right and is being conserved for future generations.

You can still clearly read the words ‘Wimpey Defence Line 1940′ on top of one of a row of concrete anti-tank cubes in the sand dunes.

On your visit to Minsmere, if you are with a group, or maybe have limited mobility which may mean you need extra guidance on how to make the most of Minsmere, you can book one of the RSPB’s volunteer guides to tailor your walk to your needs. A tour costs £100 for up to four people, or £80 for RSPB members, plus usual reserve entry fees.

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If you’re feeling even more adventurous you could even book a 4×4 safari to explore the hidden secrets of the reserve from the comfort of a 4×4 vehicle, these tours are a little more expensive at £125 per vehicle, or £100 for RSPB members, plus usual reserve entry fees.

Mollett’s Farm is only 20 minutes or so from Minsmere and is the perfect place to spend an afternoon. Why not book a luxury short break with us, prepare a picnic full of local delights in our fully equipped kitchen, before heading out into the glorious Suffolk spring to enjoy a day of exploration, history and beautiful countryside. Where will your adventure take you?

Sunset over Minsmere

Looking for more exciting and historical activities to enjoy? Make sure to check out our other blog posts and plan your itinerary for your Suffolk stay.