Tucked away off a corner of the busy B3001, just south of Farnham in leafy Surrey, lie the ruins of Waverley Abbey. The fragmentary and rough flint walls may not look very impressive today, but the abbey holds a key place in history. It was the very first Cistercian monastery to be founded in England.
But that’s not what today’s post is about. Maybe I’ll come back to the romantic medieval ruins on another day. Waverley Abbey holds another secret, and it relates to the anti-invasion defences of Britain during World War II. Remarkably, the large open space formed by the curve of the River Wey within which the abbey ruins sit, was prepared to be used as a tank ‘killing ground’ in the event of an invasion of Britain by enemy forces.
In 1940, troops dug an enormous set of anti-tank ditches across these grassy fields. These defence lines, many miles long, were constructed all across England. They were designed to compartmentalise the country and delay the Germans long enough for more mobile forces to launch counter-attacks.
The ditches at Waverley were part of the GHQ (General Headquarters) line, the longest and most important, as it would have protected London and the industrial heart of England. It ran from Somerset to Reading, around the south of London to Essex, and then up to Yorkshire.
Although the ditches themselves are today only obvious on aerial photographs, there are other clues this area saw intense activity during WWII. Close to the abbey ruins, in two groups on either side of the river, are some ‘dragon’s teeth‘.
These odd-looking pyramidal concrete blocks were obstacles to prevent German tanks from crossing the river. Near the abbey car park is a brick anti-tank gun emplacement, where guns would have been located to fire across the river floodplain. Several other gun emplacements and pillboxes can be seen in the nearby fields.
Wandering around the peaceful abbey ruins today, it is hard to imagine the country preparing itself for an imminent invasion. Luckily for us, and for the abbey ruins, these defences were never put to the test.
To find out more about the anti-invasion defences of England, I recommend William Foot’s 2006 book Beaches, fields, streets and hills: the anti-invasion landscapes of England, 1940, published by the Council for British Archaeology.
To find out more about Waverley Abbey, really the only place to look is Harold Brakspear’s excavation report, Waverley Abbey, published in 1905.
Waverley Abbey is in the guardianship of English Heritage and is free to visit.