When planning our walks, I usually pore over maps looking for local historical sites, quirky unusual things, or stunning views and landscapes. Looking at Google Maps for a walk I was planning between Wells-next-the-Sea and Morston I wondered what the strange circular shape just west of the Stiffkey Saltmarsh Carpark was. On the mapping software I use to plot our walking routes this circle had several “ruins” comments and a “whirlygig” comment. I left it there and thought we’d find out when we did the walk, but even after the walk neither of us understood why a circular tarmac patch was sitting in the saltmarsh near Stiffkey. Almost as soon as we got back home after a 120-mile drive, I was on the internet to find out more about the Stiffkey Whirlygig thing.
We, and probably most other people, associate the North Norfolk coastline with tranquillity, beautiful scenery, and intriguing wildlife. Okay, we’ve come across World War-era listening posts and sea defences while out walking, but the story behind the “Top Secret” Stiffkey Whirlygig brings home the part Norfolk played in the protection of our country. The area to the north of quiet Stiffkey village was once a military training site and was used by the War Office between 1937 and 1955 to train anti-aircraft gunners. Now I understand that not too many people lived in the area around Stiffkey, but just imagine the noise of these guns. I’m cannot imagine they were all that secret.
So, how do gunners do their target practice? Well, they can’t practice shooting at real pilots flying real aircraft, so initially they had planes towing targets behind them. You can imagine that this training was a little limited, so they came up with the idea of using remote-controlled planes which would be able to duck and dive much like a real attacking aircraft would.
The remote-controlled planes were made from metal and wood and had a wingspan of around 12 feet. They were powered by a two-stroke engine of about 70 horsepower which allowed them to reach speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. In all, these dummy aircraft weighed just over 140 kilograms. The only problem was getting these things up into the air!
And that’s where the Stiffkey Whirlygig comes into play. It was a circular runway used to get remote-controlled aircraft off the ground so that they could be flown around and used for target practice. The runway is about 300 feet in diameter and has a steel pole with rotating head at its centre.
For take-off, a plane would have sat on a trolley which was secured to the rotating head. Upon starting the plane engine, both plane and trolley would start rotating around the runway until they reached a launch speed of around 85 miles per hour. Once off the ground the dummy aircraft was under full remote control.
If the remote-controlled aircraft survived the training session, they were either glided or parachuted back to the military base. Some planes didn’t make it back and these were often a prize for the local villagers as they could use the fuel or materials.
Today, the Stiffkey Whirlygig is a little overgrown and the runway is breaking up. If out walking, I suppose you could easily just walk past not knowing that it is there. But now that you do know its there and you do understand what it was used for, it is worth walking around and getting into the centre to see the old rotating post. And it’s rather special as it is the only one known in the U.K!
Parts of the military camp also survive around the High Sand Creek Campsite. The concrete blocks used to mount the anti-aircraft guns are still to be found and many of the military building are now used for farm storage. The Officers’ Mess is now the Rescue Wooden Boats Heritage Centre, and the Guardhouse has become the camp site office.
For more information on the Stiffkey Whirlygig and the military base you can check out a very interesting YouTube video here.
And if you
are out in a walking group that passes this quirky site, or you see someone
with a confused look on their faces, then please do explain to them what they're looking at.
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