SMHS project: Cuckmere Haven


23 Oct 2015

SMHS was invited to undertake some excavations of World War Two features at Cuckmere Haven. As it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in the South Downs National Park, such opportunities are few and far between, so we jumped at the chance!

Liaison between ourselves, the County Archaeologists, County Ecologist and Natural England was required in order to secure consent to excavate and we would like to thank them all for their time and support.

The Cuckmere Landscape

The Cuckmere River cuts through the chalk cliffs of the South Downs at the western end of the Seven Sisters. The area is very popular with tourists on account of its stunning scenery, diverse wildlife and historical heritage. The low 650m stretch of shingle beach between the cliffs also made the Haven an attractive target for the German Army that was planning to invade Britain in 1940.

Cuckmere Haven

Anti-invasion defences

From June 1940, the threat of German invasion caused the UK's open beaches and strategic points to be defended. Even today, you can still see several pillboxes (small brick/concrete forts) on both sides of the valley.

The pillboxes were designed to protect a garrison of perhaps 2-4 men and a machine gun from attack before and during an invasion attempt. Although they seem to be randomly scattered throughout the landscape, the pillboxes are actually carefully positioned to allow the arc of fire from each to cover a specific sector of the beach.

Most of the defences have been removed since the war; the beaches were strewn with barbed wire entanglements, minefields and anti-tank scaffolding barriers and evidence of some of these will be discussed throughout these project pages.

SMHS member Peter Hibbs (who runs the Defence of East Sussex Project) has painstakingly researched both the surviving defences and those that have been removed, using a combination of fieldwork, oral history and documentary research over the past ten years.

Using digital 3D technology, Pete built a model of the Cuckmere Haven defences including those that no longer survive, giving an impression as to how intricate the wartime defensive layout actually was.

Pete filmed a fly-through of the model (shown at right), but has since developed the model and will be posting a much better video in due course. Unfortunately for Pete, our project is uncovering amazing new information faster than he can revise the model!

Other military uses of Cuckmere Haven

The invasion scare had all but disappeared by 1942, and the threat reduced to that of small-scale German commando raids. The valley was used for exercises, including a commando training school near the coastguard cottages. In 1942, a lighting decoy was erected in the valley, designed to accustom the Germans to seeing the working lights that would be in use at Newhaven Harbour during an Allied invasion of Europe. Had the Germans bombed the lights before the invasion, they would harmlessly hit Cuckmere Haven instead. In 1941, the RAF began operating Friston Airfield on the Downs to the east of the valley.

Heritage crime

Sadly, the landscape at Cuckmere Haven has seen vandalism in recent years and this violation of the landscape, ironically, is partly why SMHS were able to obtain permission to undertake excavation. Because the area had already suffered from repeated criminal damage, a full and proper archaeological excavation by SMHS could not have a more detrimental impact on the landscape than had already been inflicted.

Cuckmere Haven

Some of the pillboxes have been spray-painted with graffiti and other activity has also been reported in the past in this and other sensitive heritage areas.

The buried pillox we excavated in October 2015 had been subjected to a number of excavations since 2010. Given that this work was done without the permission of the landowner and other agencies, these excavations have been reported as heritage crimes.

The photograph at right shows the pillbox as it was in February 2010, prior to the illegal excavations.

Built into the flood defence bank, the structure was originally partially uncovered by routine removal of vegetation by the park rangers. Note the depth of soil on the pillbox roof and the bent metal bar; this bar was placed to retain a couple of pieces of concrete over the loophole.

Not long after this photo was taken, the pillbox was illegally excavated by person or persons unknown.

Cuckmere Haven

Now compare the previous photograph with the one at right, taken in May 2010; this clearly shows that somebody has attempted to remove the earth from around the pillbox.

The sloping front of the pillbox was exposed, but only a rough, narrow cut was made through the bank to the back edge of the roof; the authorities believe that the culprits were working under cover of darkness and were either disturbed or else ran out of time before legitimate visitors to the park might catch them in the act.

After the initial fuss had died down, in 2012, the vandals returned and managed to expose the remainder of the roof and begin an attempt to dig down to uncover the pillbox entrance. Fortunately, they failed in the latter respect. After this second attack, the park rangers attempted to reinstate the flood defence bank and minimise the damage done. Unfortunately, the vandals had thrown the soil they excavated far and wide down the bank into the vegetation, leaving very little to be reinstated by the authorities.

Cuckmere Haven

Wildlife crime

While this pillbox's excavation is obviously a heritage crime, it also constitutes a wildlife crime; a natural habitat and flood defence was willfully damaged.

As the vandalism occurred at some point between February and May, the damage was done during the bird nesting season. There are signs in the area to warn visiters to keep off the bank so as to avoid disturbing the nesting birds.

SMHS was given a time window of September/October to avoid excavating during nesting season, but also because this would be before reptiles (such as the adder shown at right), enter hibernation. This meant that had we encountered any during the dig, they would simply move out of our way without being harmed.

Protection of SSSIs

The above describes both heritage and wildlife crimes in an SSSI. Conviction thereof means a fine of up to £20,000 from a Magistrate's Court; a Crown Court can impose an unlimited fine.

Sussex Police have a designated heritage and wildlife crime officer, so any act of vandalism to the historic or natural environment can be reported through the usual channels. If you have any information about what was done at Cuckmere Haven or other heritage/wildlife crimes, please notify the police on 101!

Part of SMHS's remit was to make good the damage done by the vandals. This was done by excavating the soil (indigenous to the site) that had been used to backfill the pillbox and use it to reinstate the profile of the flood defence bank. This also meant that the pillbox had to be completely covered over to protect it from future attacks. The local park rangers keep the site under observation to ensure that the damage is not repeated.

For more information about heritage crime, please see Historic England's website: What is Heritage Crime?


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