From WWI to Rave, Britain's Forgotten Wartime Structures Have Their Place in Every Decade
We spoke to Marc Wilson about his photos of the numerous wartime buildings that have become a silent part of Britain's scenery.
There are numerous grand memorials to Britain's wartime dead. But alongside the buffered plaques and the striking limestone statues, countless muted physical remnants of war in the UK and Northern Europe remain strewn across the country – great hulking concrete structures becoming a silent part of the scenery.
Photographer Marc Wilson spent six years visiting 143 of these locations for his book, The Last Stand, which was released late last year. Despite the fact I wasn't alive while the bunkers and gun batteries he documented were in use, turning the pages and looking at the exoskeletons of war embedded on the landscape, I knew they captured some of my experience.
The images illustrate the thread that has run through the tapestry of British life since these structures were built. Or, as Marc himself puts it, "The period of time in between their construction and today is made up of the histories, stories and memories that the work hopes to reflect. The objects can be seen as full stops in the timeline."
The blockhouses of Marc's photos, in other words, have slept along coastlines and hilltops since their assembly, waiting for someone to chance upon and find a place for them within their own personal timeline. Growing up in Norfolk, the outlook for me was always very much horizontal; we looked to the countryside, out over the fields, for direction, and happened upon many war remnants similar to those shown in Marc's book.
The fields around us hid both a tumbledown castle behind spiked gates and a Cold War observation post among a thicket of thorns. The castle, what's left of it, and the unroofed rooms of the observation post allowed us to smoke away from prying eyes, and their walls became the boundaries of our own worlds.
Looking at Marc's photo of Brean Down Fort, which juts out of the crest of the Somerset hillside, it's hard not to see myself looking out of its window, cursing the wind and running out of matches.
These places became the settings for our realities away from home, and – as we grew older – venues in which we could escape everything else, through raves and free parties. Any concrete creation that provided some kind of shelter in our local forests, fields, dunes and quarries was fair game for the sound system mafia who kept Norfolk's outdoor party free-for-all alive.
The link between the rave scene and the structures in Marc's photos is perhaps most salient in the image of the front gun placements in Portland, Dorset. Had we lost the Battle of Britain, these guns would have helped to prevent invasion by shore. Yet, part of me can't help but look at those curved battery walls and wonder if there's any better place to position a sound system rig, with room to spare behind for the generator and jerry cans (unfortunately, however, there's not actually a path that a van could drive down to drop off all the gear).
A party that comes to mind while looking at these images is the AZTEK multi-rigger at Kings Cliffe, Northamptonshire, on the Easter bank holiday in 2006. Blackened concrete structures with arched roofs of corrugated iron echoed the sound of happy hardcore and hard trance from sound systems in the adjacent trench.
When the sun came up, I noticed that the hangar, control tower and runway – which was now packed with hundreds of Fiestas and Escorts – had once been part of an RAF base. In 1944, it was home to the Americans – specifically, the 20th Fighter Group, known as the "Loco Group" for their acuity when it came to dropping bombs on locomotives. As the morning chill began to set in, I realised that the trembling teenagers and the hum of the generators remained the only constants there since the Loco Group last flew.
It sounds odd, but I glean a far greater sense of identity from looking at these photos than I do via scrolling through old Facebook pictures. I can hear the music boom beyond the frame, and that feels unique to me.
For my father and grandfather, the photos hark back to a collective nationalism that was rooted in identity for all, and the strength of an empire in the face of fascism. They represent a time when the anachronisms of imperialism and the nuances of civil defence found their way into common conversation. They were tangible evidence of war, objects that brought the headlines to life and made the danger feel graver. I'm not sure if my generation could really fathom the thought that anti-tank barricades were once necessary defence expenditure.
Marc has gone to great lengths to disguise these wartime narratives, though. In his image of a pillbox leaning into the surf at Studland Bay, he shot the cold obelisk with a slow shutter speed, giving the water a milky appearance. In doing so, he takes objects that represent great violence and creates scenes of peace.
To achieve this, Marc would often venture out of hotels well before dawn and stand around in the freezing sea was, waiting for that moment when the light illuminates the remnants just right and he sees them as he wants them to be seen.
There's a lot of debate as to whether the structures in Marc's photos should be left erect as tribute, or whether they should be removed. In the case of the Wissant II, photographed above, the decision was the latter, after a child was injured on the wrought iron bars extending from its concrete torso. Marc thinks that's a shame, and I can't help but feel he's right. The structures stand for something much more important than we're maybe capable of grasping right now.
We live in a time where character is defined by the variety of stickers on our MacBooks. The Last Stand hints at something more complete; dilapidated stone works that look to me like blood and sinew. The broken cartilage of a nation with its nose cracked all out of sorts.
When documenting the past, it's important to remember that you're also capturing the present, and the future. A collective nostalgia doesn't merely observe, it echoes.
Marc's photos, then, are like wormholes, through which we can see Britain's past, present and future. I just hope that the objects he's shot will be around for another generation of kids like me.
The Last Stand (Triplekite) is available here.
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