14 June 2008

Fabled battlefields that never saw war

By Eric Jansson
Published by Financial Times, 14 June 2008

The sign was anything but welcoming. “Explosive hazard,” it read, and a little cartoon showed shrapnel flying. “Localised quicksand.” Then, in bold font: “Former military target area. Do not touch any metallic objects. They may explode and kill you.”

Under a slate-grey sky, narrow footpaths tracked by sheep’s hooves ran around pale sand dunes, cutting here and there into patches of tall grass. I heard rustling up ahead, beyond the sign, and looked to see a startled sheep scurry between two dunes. A pause. No explosion. Had the sheep sunk into the ground?

I followed gingerly. I knew exactly where I was going, having plotted carefully in advance my walk on Cheswick Beach, on Northumbria’s North Sea coast. But one steps a bit more gently when advised to watch out for bombs and quicksand.

The lurid warnings were welcome. I had not gone to the beach for unspoilt beauty; it was spoilt beauty I was after. Not many people visit this great, lonesome expanse of sand and water. A few birdwatchers go there because of its location within Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve, a mecca for migratory birds. Others make the pilgrimage to Holy Island, the offshore monastic site that played a key role in the seventh-century Christian evangelisation of the north of England.

I went there because Cheswick Beach is heavily polluted by junk left over from the second world war. I had the place to myself – miles of it, battered by the sea wind. Not just old bombs can be found on the dunes, but pillboxes and observation towers. At low tide, so I am told, one can also find the wreckage of a crashed Spitfire.

Yet the casual visitor is unlikely to recognise any of these wartime features. Zipping down a motorway, oblivious, we pass the fabled battlefield, the famous castle or the important ruin. It is hidden behind a barrier, lost in peripheral vision, or simply ignored. Demystifying such landscapes is rewarding work for a tourist.

In early 1940, the British Army, RAF and Home Guard scrambled to prepare for an imminent German air and sea invasion, Operation Seelöwe. Eventually, thanks to the summer’s Battle of Britain, Hitler and Göring called off their plan in September of that year. But tens of thousands of British anti-invasion features had already been built, and many of them remain today. They are gross physical reminders of past horror, yet in places like Cheswick Beach one finds that, over time, they have merged permanently with the pleasant English coastal landscape. These anti-invasion defences are a world to explore, hints of the past that invisibly shape our present.

My path snaked through the dunes until I reached a clearing and found my first objective, a concrete and brick pillbox topped by a two-tiered RAF tower. The pillbox was buried in sand up to its loopholes, as the gun slots are called. To enter, I would have needed to slide in on my belly. So instead I climbed the stairs up the half-shattered tower and found a platform on top, damp and crawling with snails. It offered a fine view of the scraggly dunes, immense sands, tidal pools and waves crashing in the distance. One could begin to make out the military logic of the beach.

Such exploration has never been easier. In 2002 the Council for British Archaeology completed an eight-year project, a Defence of Britain database, now searchable online, that pinpoints such sites. Add to this the satellite imagery published by Google Maps, and even an amateur like me can plan a rewarding day of discovery.

Not far from the tower I found a long row of anti-tank blocks. Had I not known what these great cubes of concrete were, I might have mistaken them for crude post-modern artwork. Dumped across a break between the dunes, like child’s building blocks, they formed a line parallel to the sea. I walked along the line until it began to disappear into the ground. The last visible block poked just an inch or two above the sand. The earth, shifting imperceptibly over time, was swallowing the blocks.

A mile or so down the shore, I found an immense crater, 31 paces across. Standing in the middle, I wondered if this was the work of an RAF test bomber or a Luftwaffe attacker, both busy in the area during the war. I struggled to suspend belief. Could this hole, which mangled one side of a grass-covered dune, really be a bomb crater?

On a different excursion, 12 miles inland at the market town of Wooler, which had been heavily fortified during the war, my search proved simpler.

The town was ringed by pillboxes, and some remain. My favourite was a little lozenge-shaped one all but hidden in the bushes above a bridle trail. From within, looking out over a narrow valley, soldiers posted there would have been well placed to pin down anyone trying to take Wooler from behind.

One pillbox, a great hexagonal structure, was now located inaccessibly in someone’s backyard. Reaching another, on a construction site, necessitated a little discreet trespassing. Yet it was worth it, partly for the challenge of getting there, partly to crouch inside and look out of the loophole, wondering who “Doris” was. Graffiti on the wall had memorialised her.

But it was back at Cheswick Beach that my explorations yielded the greatest reward. A local expert had advised that the wreck of the Spitfire was only accessible when the tide is out . But because of the quicksand warnings my steps were extremely cautious. As I searched for something other than driftwood and seaweed, an almost-full moon peaked through the clouds, shining brightly.

And I found it, or would like to believe I did – a heavily rusted metal form, mostly submerged in the sand. If it was in fact the crashed Spitfire, then it was a small part of the cockpit I saw, poking out of the sand, for fitted into it were surf-worn panes of glass, shattered.

I wondered what I would find there with more time, but left the beach as darkness deepened. A landscape, like a life, guards some secrets more closely than others.

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