Heigham Holmes: secret island

A return visit


June 2015


On a fairly warm,

dry evening in

June we hosted

our second private

visit to the

National Trust’s

nature reserve of

Heigham Holmes.  History Group members and visitors, totalling 58 people, assembled at the end of Ferrygate Lane and met the NT’s warden for an escorted visit. Here are Chris Harrison’s impressions.

Located just across the River Thurne from Martham, via the new floating swing bridge (installed in 2012), and known as Martham Ferry, Heigham Holmes is an inverted island being surrounded by the River Thurne, Candle Dyke and a number of other river channels & drainage ditches and is below the natural height of the surrounding rivers and ditches.  The area covers some 500 acres and is an oasis of peace and a haven for wildlife.

It is a unique and internationally important site, with reed-fringed flood banks, open water, scrub, wet woodland and grazing marsh. Within this area is a maze of dykes and pools characteristic of the Norfolk Broads landscape.  We were told by the NT warden that three species of deer are found on the area – Muntjac, Chinese Water deer and, surprisingly, over 100 head of red deer.  We were also told to look out for marsh harriers, barn owls, cranes, hobbies & bitterns, which all call the reserve home, along with wading birds such as lapwing, avocet and redshank.


Originally operated as a working farm

the Trust took over in 1987. They have

been working with tenant farmers to

manage the site and restore the

intensively managed farmland back to grassland, as well as reinstating water levels to create an

internationally important wetland habitat.


We were also told of the possibility of the marshes being used as a secret airfield between 1940 and 1944 by Special Operations Executive. Black-

painted Lysanders of 161 Squadron

may have ferried agents from here

to occupied Europe.  Despite

numerous searches for evidence on

the ground and in aerial

photographs taken during WWII,

there seems to be no trace left of

its existence. Further research

continues with the hope of substantiating all the rumours. In 2010 a BBC team filmed an episode of Secret Britain from Heigham Holmes, and made mention of the mysterious airfield.


Also on Heigham Holmes is a Grade II listed wind pump dating from the mid-19th century, described by the warden as a tapering brick circular four-storey tower with opposing doors and one window on first and second floors.  It is one of the earliest known drainage mills using an internal turbine casing instead of the more traditional paddle wheel to raise water from the marsh into the nearby river.  A lot of the internal running gear is still in place together with the remains of the eight-bay patent sails.


After two and a quarter

hours we returned to

the Ferry, having

completed a circular

walk around the site.

Our thanks go to the

warden for giving his

time and sharing his



And the follow-up talk

October 2016

Steve Prowse, now

'National Trust Ranger'

at Heigham Holmes, is

probably our most frequent speaker at the History Group. We have made two visits to the island and this is his second evening talk. In between he featured in the ‘Martham Stories’ video. Can you have too much of a good thing? Evidently not! 55 people came to hear him, including several guests, seven of whom instantly took up membership.

Every time he has something different to say or to show, and there is always something new to learn. One was an aerial photograph taken during the 1936 floods. It takes you back to how the Holme would have been before the marshes were drained. A low island, with the farmstead in the centre which would have been connected by a causeway to the drier land around. Imagine a fried egg, he suggested.

The question about why the local rivers no longer flow to the sea but go the long way round to Yarmouth was put to rest. Not blocked by the natural build-up of sand dunes but their mouths deliberately filled-in by land farmers who had had enough of salt water moving up the estuaries and flooding their land. Add this to the digging out of the Broads and the drainage of the marshes and you begin to get an impression of how much this gentle, apparently natural, Norfolk landscape has been manipulated by the interfering hand of humankind.


Heigham Holmes is now being returned to its natural state. Careful management of farming techniques and of the level of the water are deliberately aimed at restoring the natural environment. The list of birds resident or visiting is unending – marsh rail, cranes, snipe, skylark, avocet, white-fronted geese from Siberia, Bewick swans from Iceland. And pink-footed geese. Now that is important – 99% of the world population winter in the UK. Heigham Holmes is a key centre, with 20,000 at the peak. Imagine that! There is also Britain’s largest land mammal, the red deer (over 70 of them), and the harvest mouse, Britain’s smallest mammal.


We indulged ourselves in the usual discussion about what happened at Heigham Holmes during World War II. Was it an airfield and was it involved in secret operations? Why else was there a flat-topped three-storey brick building as part of the farmstead if it wasn’t a control tower? And why slap a 100 year Official Secrets embargo on what happened there if nothing happened there?


Sorry – run out of space (in the Parish Mag, that is) – no room to tell you about the remarkable work going on at Horsey. Perhaps another time, or you could always make a visit.

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