From Barrow to Bunker: Archaeology on the MOD Estate

Meeting date

Phil Abramson (Archaeologist, Environmental Support & Compliance, Ministry of Defence)

James Williams Lecture
Meeting report

On 1 December 2017, 59 Fellows, Members and guests of the Society heard a fascinating James Williams Memorial Lecture given by Phil Abramson on the archaeological and cultural heritage on the Ministry of Defence Estate. Since 2004, the Speaker has been one of a team of five Archaeology Advisers in the MOD Historic Environment Team. He is based in Catterick, with responsibility for MOD sites in Scotland, the North of England and the military bases in Cyprus.

In total, the MOD estate covers 240,000 Hectares or one percent of the UK surface, equivalent in size to all National Trust properties. It contains 1000 Listed Buildings, 750 Scheduled Monuments, 10 World Heritage Sites and 6 Battlefields. The remit of the Speaker and his colleagues includes the full range of British history from Neolithic and Bronze Age Barrows (there are 240 Barrows on Salisbury Plain alone), through Iron Age Hillforts, Roman Marching Camps and Villas, Mediaeval sites, Napoleonic-era buildings, First and Second World War sites, right up to the impressive concrete remains of the ill-fated Blue Streak Missile programme of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and on to the famous Golfballs of RAF Fylingdales. Installation of the latter in the 1960s was vigorously opposed by many on the grounds of their disruptive visual impact on the landscape, and their demolition in the late 1980s equally opposed as the loss of a striking and familiar feature of that same landscape. The bases on Cyprus contain a number of remarkable Roman and Byzantine ruins.

The remit of the MOD Historic Environment Team is firstly to assess any impact on Heritage whenever a new build is proposed, and it was clear from his lecture that any concerns are treated seriously with every effort made to avoid damage. The Team also has a stewardship role, ensuring that as far as posible there is no deterioration in the properties under their charge. The role of Stewardship extends to disposal of MOD land. (It is planned to reduce MOD holdings by 30% over the next few years). Lastly, of course, the Team must ensure value for money in any works undertaken to preserve heritage. One project particularly close to the speaker's heart, as evident when he described it, is Operation Nightingale, a programme that draws in soldiers wounded, physically or mentally, in recent conflicts into on-site archaeological digs and similar hands-on archaeology. It has proved immensely beneficial to the men and women participating, not least ending any sense of isolation and making them once again members of a team. The audience were reminded of the long tradition of military archaeologists such as Pitt Rivers, Mortimer Wheeler, O.G.S. Crawford and T.E. Lawrence.

In a wide-ranging review of various historical sites on MOD land, the Speaker had an engaging way of involving his audience by showing a series of untitled slides and asking the audience if they recognised them (which some knowledgeable members generally did), before moving on to discuss the site's significance and the problems it presented. One such was Fort George, near Inverness, a site of considerable tourist interest but also an active military base serving the Black Watch. Numerous Martello Towers are on MOD land, but recent restoration of one cost £180,000 and they are of now essentially structures without a purpose (although the Speaker showed a slide of one Martello Tower, not on MOD land, that had been converted into the last word in desirable seaside bungalows! A Bastle on MOD land had cost £30,000 to restore but is situated so deep within its military site as inaccessible to the Public and to be of no use to the Military. On the other hand, Dymchurch Redoubt, built in the Napoleonic era, has found a use as a 'Room Clearance' training facility for soldiers, known offically as FIBUA or 'Fighting In Built-Up Areas' training facility, and unofficially among the troops as FISH – 'fighting in soemone's house'. By use of disposable light-weight windows and doors, the actual historical site emerges unscathed after each 'battle', but serves a useful purpose.

One distressing, for Antiquarians, example the Speaker showed was the fate of the 'Sandhurst Blocks'. These buildings date from the late 1930s and were constructed as an aid to recruitment in the build-up of military forces just prior to the start of World War II, replacing the older disjointed training sites (one hut for sleeping, another for ablutions, a third hut for eating …). A total of seven of them were built, of good quality materials in a striking and architecturally accomplished Neo-Georgian style, to house 640 men. They did prove an aid to recruitment in their time, but were seen in our era as prison-like disincentives to recruitment. In the end, one was listed and preserved, the other six demolished as refurbishment would cost more than a rebuild in the style of University Halls of Residence.

The final site shown was the somewhat forlorn Phoenix Cinema, a listed building on the now closed RAF Leconfield, a base for Fighter Command and then Bomber Command during the War. A recording of a Mission Briefing given in the Cinema still survives.