Last summer I was privileged to visit, with the Victorian Society during their AGM weekend in Norwich, the church of St Mary, West Tofts, in the midst of the Ministry of Defence’s Stanford Battle Area.
The 30,000-acre training site was cleared of its population in 1942, to provide a battle-training area in preparation for Operation Overlord, the Battle of Normandy which followed D-Day in 1944. Six villages – Buckenham Tofts, Langford, Stanford, Sturston, Tottington and West Tofts – were emptied within four weeks. Four of these settlements, Langford, Stanford, Tottington and West Tofts, had functioning parish churches at the time.
At the end of hostilities the villagers’ expectations of being allowed to return were denied, and still the area is sealed and in regular military use. Indeed, a replica Afghan village, staffed – if that is the word – by ex-Ghurka soldiers and amputee veterans, was constructed in 2009 at a cost of £14 million to assist in the current conflict. The site was also used as a location for outdoor sequences of the TV series Dad’s Army, which was set in nearby Thetford [see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/holidaytypeshub/article-587698/Take-trip-Dads-Army-country.html].
Access to West Tofts Church is necessarily limited, and its isolation gives it an odd atmosphere. West Tofts was of particular interest to the Victorian Society because it was restored in the late 1840s by the great Gothic Revival architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who rebuilt the chancel and added the quirky vestry and organ loft on the north side of the chancel, prompted by the wealthy parson, Rev Augustus Sutton (1825-1885), younger son of a Nottinghamshire baronet.
The transept contains an elaborate memorial to Sutton’s wife, Mary Elizabeth; his more modest tomb lies in an external recess under the chancel wall. The organ was transferred in the 1950s to the church of All Saints’, South Pickenham: it has a spectacular organ-case, with leaves that open out in the manner of a triptych.
The likelihood of the battle area becoming safely accessible to the general public is virtually zero: the military necessity remains and there is an accumulation of live ammunition.
There is a beautifully written and illustrated account of West Tofts and the other battle-area churches at http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/battlezone/battlezoneintro.htm. Detailed accounts of the requisitioning of the Stanford Battle Area are in the excellent BBC WW2 People’s War series at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/62/a3258362.shtml#top, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/07/a3258407.shtml#top and http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/20/a3291220.shtml.
The BBC website has an audio-slideshow of another deserted village, Imber on Salisbury Plain: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11345287. [Further background on Imber is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imber with a cross-reference to the entry on Tyneham, Dorset, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyneham.]
The Ministry of Defence discourages requests for access to West Toft Church and other sites in the Stanford Battle Area, and priority is given to those with a personal or family connection.