The Cold War

By James, N. | Antiquity, September 2002 | Go to article overview

The Cold War


James, N., Antiquity


Was it daring of English Heritage to convene a seminar on the Cold War, barely a decade since it ended and with air bases on fresh alert? To release its report on Cold War monuments, the meeting was held, under the chairmanship of John Schofield, at the Public Record Office, in London, in December 2001, as one of English Heritage's series of presentations on its Monuments Protection Programme. Some 40 staff attended with another 40 from Local Authorities and other UK organizations concerned with managing archaeological resources. Discussion ranged from world history to archaeological technique and from Vulcan bombers to the chilling sublime.

Summing up five years of research (Schofield 1998; English Heritage 2000; and cf. Dobinson et al. 1997), the report describes, explains and appraises the conditions of 31 types of site, ranging from airfields, missile bases and radars to emergency Regional Seats of Government and depots. Naval remains are yet to be fully assessed. Cold War monuments (Cocroft 2001) is available from English Heritage by appointment or in County Sites & Monuments Records. It can now be compared with the research on bunkers in the UK and North america by McCamley (2002).

The sites locked up, in all, a vast acreage. Yet they are vanishing already. With a view to both historical and archaeological significance and the requirements and feasibility of management, English Heritage is now assessing samples for statutory protection. The `Aztec Temple' at Acomb, York, former group headquarters of the Royal Observer Corps, is one of the first sites to have been Scheduled as a Monument. In fact, some of the Corps' posts are Scheduled already by virtue of occupying prehistoric barrows! About 140 other sites are under consideration for the same status, and 40 buildings for protection by Listing, while certain plantings at bases may be put forward for inclusion in the Register of Historic Parks & Gardens. At the same time, as David Miles, English Heritage's Chief Archaeologist, explained at the meeting, there is a `peace dividend': with new access above bases long out of bounds, aerial photographers are spotting sites of various other periods too.

Reports from Wayne Cocroft, Roger Thomas and Jeremy Lake showed that two characteristics of Cold War archaeology in England are the size of some of the sites and very diverse durability of remains. Among the smallest were the Observer posts, the commonest type of structure; but the base at Greenham Common covered 364 ha, including a runway more than 3 km long. Tallest is none other than London's Post Office Tower, its `shape ... resistant to blast effects' (Cocroft 2001: 30Commsmast p. 6). The most durable sites must be those hardened against direct attack during the 1970s, although it is not known how well the concrete of the mighty bunker and `burster cap' at Alconbury will weather. On the other hand, the temporary buildings for Bloodhound missiles or the emplacements for big raised radars have left no more than `footprints'. Parts of the base at Greenham Common show now as mere crop marks. One of the most famous sights was Fylingdales but, even had it been granted statutory protection, pecking birds showed how fragile were the great radars' `golfball' skins. Secrecy was characteristic too. Isolated on Orford Ness were weird-looking laboratories; while, at Kelvedon Hatch, Essex, a mild bungalow concealed a defence control centre, and the ugly `church' near by turned out to be a generator!

Some of the sites yield to industrial archaeology. The `production process' can be revealed for the nuclear weapon store at Barnham, Suffolk, and fixed sites of Bloodhounds show a stratigraphy of development. Yet to be identified, however, are the traces of assembly sheds for the first atom bombs (see Cocroft 2001: 7Nuclstores pp. 4, 6, 4aBloodhoundMark1 p. 6; cf. Cocroft 2000.)

Many of the sites were military before the Cold War. Greenham Common was a base from 1941, Priddy's Hard, Gosport, a depot of the 18th and 19th centuries. …

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