‘Barrows, Bunkers and Blue Streak Missiles: Archaeology on the MOD Estate’ by Phil Abramson, MOD Archaeologist for the North of England, Scotland and Cyprus
9th October 2019
Maintenance work meant that our talk on 9 October was moved to the Old Court Room in the Town Hall, sparking many pre-meeting comments about the decorative plasterwork and panelling, and the historic use of the room. Our speaker was Phil Abramson, MOD Archaeologist for the North of England, Scotland and Cyprus, though members may remember him from his previous years with WYAS.
The talk was a wide-ranging look at the role of the Ministry of Defence’s ‘Historic Environment Team’, the sites they cover and Phil’s experience in the role. The team is made up of 4 members and covers all MOD property in the UK and abroad. This large but diminishing area of 240,000 hectares of land, mostly rural, includes around 1000 listed buildings, 750 Scheduled Ancient Monuments, 2 railways, 10 World Heritage Wakefield Historical Society Newsletter November 2019 4 Sites and 6 registered battlefields making up 1% of the land surface of the UK. Responsibility for Overseas territories Gibraltar, Belize, Cyprus, Germany and the Falklands is split between the team.
The MOD Historic Environment Team are stewards of the defence estate with responsibility toward the historic and natural environment for cultural, industrial, commercial and military considerations. They assess sites and advise other MOD departments and customers including front-line commands, civil servants and tenants on use and planning, surveying, conservation and repair. Sites not in use are sold or returned to their previous owners in the same or better repair as when they entered MOD hands.
Sites are spread over the country, many were recognised by society members with knowledge of military history. They included rope mills at Portsmouth, Cape Wrath, Holcombe Moor, St Kilda, Lulworth Cove, Fort George, Inverness, Martello Towers at Hythe. Missile silos, listening posts, pillboxes, firing ranges and both historic and working barracks are managed by the MOD. Famously much of Salisbury Plain is managed by the MOD and both Bronze Age barrows and badgers have to be avoided by training soldiers. 5% of Cyprus is owned by the MOD, which looks after it’s archaeology from Bronze and Iron Age hill forts to the present day. Highlights were discussed in more depth: Otterburn and Catterick in particular.
Catterick is a working barracks built to house and train First World War troops. Large communal buildings, ‘Sandhurst blocks’, contained dormitory accommodation, leisure and training facilities in one place. By the 1920s, shops and cinemas were built mirroring a small town. As needs changed, the blocks were knocked down in favour of smaller buildings. Plenty of archaeology remains though; it is still possible to make out crop marks of trenches built by the first recruits. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War, Phil was involved in the publication of From Farms to Arms: The History having interviewed soldiers who had served at Catterick and farmers who were tenants on the land.
Otterburn in Northumberland is a training estate with the largest firing range in the UK, but contains Roman sites Chew Green and Dere Street and features from hundreds of years of farming and border settlements. Military personnel have been trained in laser scanning techniques which, combined with emergency excavation, have preserved the Roman campsite. Being an active MOD site ensures low foot fall and therefore well-preserved earthworks.
Rural MOD sites may have been, or still are, working farmland or pasture. Military work must be managed around lambing season and uses for deserted buildings be found without destroying the basic fabric or archaeological evidence. Conservation is specifically tailored. Benign neglect, protection from active destruction but otherwise being left to the elements, is an approach often used for concrete structures or exposed stone monuments. Other sites need more active methods. Buildings that are in use with some minor wear-and-tear are often better preserved and less likely to appear on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register than those left empty.
Conservation of archive material, documents, photos and recordings, are not overlooked. One example was a series of images depicting the construction of Fylingdales radar station on the North Yorks Moors. We also heard a very moving recording from DST Leconfield of the briefing of a Second World War bombing crew. A unique experience. An unexpected item was a tree carving, or ‘arborglyph’, of a scantily clad young woman made by a US soldier dated to 7th September 1944.
Phil told us of his involvement in Operation Nightingale, a project for the rehabilitation of wounded, injured or sick service men and women by taking part in archaeological work at Barry Budon. Physical activity in the outdoors, problem-solving and teamwork is therapeutic and builds confidence.
One unique site was the Cold War-era missile silo near Birdoswald. Set up in 1959 by Harold MacMillan it was to produce the Blue Streak ICBM missile, designed, built and tested in the UK. It was slow to fuel though and was quickly superseded in 1961. We saw contemporary photos of its construction and compared with modern photos of the concrete structures still standing. It is a well preserved site including a section through a missile held on a cradle. This has been left to benign neglect, but the site is rare and between the asbestos shell and delicate electrics, nesting swallows and the Cumbrian elements Phil is hoping to design some better protection without spoiling the site.
The team is responsible for cultural and ethnological heritage too. This ranges from involvement in the Edinburgh Tattoo to building a replica Afghan village to train soldiers in cultural awareness.
There were questions on visiting MOD sites (often possible but at very limited times with permission) and restrictions on sites leaving MOD hands (new owners promise to abide by Historic England assessments).
A fascinating talk on a little discussed subject.