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A Very Dangerous Locality by Rob Liddiard

The Sandlings landscape is quintessential East Anglia. It is a place of long, gentle lines with a vast open sky. Much of its distinctive character derives from the juxtaposition of the coastline with heath and marsh, which in places blend almost seamlessly with the beaches to make, in extent if not always in detail, a landscape unique in the British Isles. The idiosyncrasies of the Sandlings first began to be appreciated in the late nineteenth century, with the growth of the tourist industry. It was at this time that the modern perception of the landscape took shape. From the 1880s Walberswick became associated with the circle of Impressionists led by Philip Wilson Steer, with compositions such as The Beach at Walberswich widely accepted as some of the most authentic works of Impressionism in British art. Other notable figures from the arts whose work was influenced by the peculiarities of the Sandlings include Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Benjamin Britten and George Orwell.

     During the 1930s numerous paintings depicted an idyllic landscape of villages, churches and wide open spaces, which represented a regional take on the interwar sensibility that English national identity was bound up with notions of the rural landscape.

     The imagined qualities of the Sandlings can also be seen in the artwork commissioned as part of the ‘Recording Britain’ programme, in which the nation’s architectural heritage and historic environment was recorded by artists in a bid to keep a record of those places felt to be vulnerable to German bombing. Among the Suffolk material Orford, Sudbourne, Bawdsey and Woodbridge all feature prominently, with the dominant image one of a timeless, sleepy region largely untouched by modernity.

     The extent and nature of the physical changes brought to this landscape by the war struck both residents and outsiders alike. The description of the area between Ipswich and Felixstowe by the American serviceman Robert Arbib, who wrote an account of his time in England almost immediately after the end of the war, stands for many: 

 

the country was a fortress—and these coastal counties were a Siegfried Line. At every turn of the road were concrete pillboxes. The railway lines and aerodromes were lined and ringed with mountainous piles of rusting barbed wire; at every narrow intersection and in the village streets and at bends in the road were big cylinders of concrete, pyramidal blocks of concrete, V shaped stacks of iron rails ready to be formed into tank obstacles. Every flat field had its poles and wires strung out to snare and wreck gliders and airborne troop-carriers.

 

The numerous oddities of the defence landscape and the incongruence of the individual works with their surroundings are a consistent feature of wartime writing and often the photographic record. For the civilian inhabitants of the Sandlings, the visual transformation of familiar backdrops was so profound that some were moved to record their thoughts and experiences in writing and art. In ‘Walberswick, Then and Now’, written by two long-term village residents c.1944, it was the physical changes in the countryside that drew comment:

The bridges have all disappeared,

The sluice is turned about,

To keep the water on the marsh

Which always kept it out.

The beach is barricaded now,

The lanes are mud and mire,

The footpaths and the lovely walks

Are strewn with barbéd wire …

O Walberswick, O don’t despair,

good times will come again

When war is done and peace declared,

prosperity will reign.

 

Similar sentiments can be seen in wartime works of art. While pre-war landscapes of the Suffolk coast tended to focus on subtle shorelines and pastoral scenes, wartime compositions were more avant-garde; oils such as Prunella Clough’s Harbour Works (1942), Shoreline and War Defences (1941–42) and Closed Beach (1945) exhibit more Cubist characteristics, with vivid depictions of scaffolding, concrete and wire. Here the surrealist concern with surprise and unusual juxtapositions were tailor-made for wartime defences, as their form contrasted so dramatically with the pre-war ideal.

In other ways, physical defence works did not represent an altogether ‘alien’ imposition. The idea that the Sandlings was a pre-war idyll may have existed in the mind, but the placing of geometric concrete structures along parts of the coast had been seen prior to the outbreak of war. At Thorpeness—a rare example of a deliberately planned seaside resort—the village was developed by the Ogilve family during the 1920s, when it became an exclusive retreat. The character of the village was set by timber-framed cottages and an element of the fantastic was provided by the creation of idiosyncratic buildings such as the disguised water tower known as ‘The House in the Clouds’. This facade of a fantasy playground hid an altogether more mundane fabric. Behind the timber framing the shells of the individual buildings were made of brick and concrete. The property boundaries and garden walls were also of concrete, but here they were left bare, with the blocks themselves arranged in decorative forms. Altogether more elaborate, however, were the golf course and the entrance to the tennis courts, the latter comprising a concrete archway reminiscent of a classical portal. It is therefore not quite the case that the creation of the wartime landscape represented the imposition of unfamiliar forms onto the region, as modernity had already, albeit in a small way, reached the Sandlings.

     The distribution of Second World War archaeological remains in the Sandlings is uneven. In part this is due to the fact that defences were not built uniformly everywhere but selective patterns of removal have also left their mark. The abandonment and removal of military works also took place during the war itself. Defence schemes were reconfigured on numerous occasions and so structures of all kinds were prone to abandonment as strategies changed. Orders for the destruction of redundant pillboxes can be found as early as 1941 and small numbers of pillboxes were removed only a year after their initial construction; in September 1941 the 9th Cameronians casually noted the deliberate destruction of a pillbox in their battalion area by Royal Engineers. A similar fate awaited field positions that by the middle of the war were considered unnecessary; at the end of 1941 unoccupied trenches that could provide cover for the enemy were to be blocked or covered with rabbit wire, while in June 1942 two companies of the 2nd Hertfordshires were engaged in the ‘dismantling of old positions and wire’. A significant number of concrete defences were destroyed from 1943/44 as part of training and where redundant structures such as anti-landing ditches lay over potential arable land they began to be infilled from a similar time.

When it became evident that the war was going to end government attention turned to how military remains were to be systematically removed. In 1944 it had been agreed that the Ministry of Works would be responsible for the derequisitioning of military property and the removal of the ‘Temporary Defence Works’, which included coastal defences and training infrastructure. The normal procedure was for the landowner to receive compensation for such works until they were cleared and the land ‘restored’ to its pre-war state, an arrangement that continued until 1960, when all claims were extinguished. Where the effort to clear defences was not felt to be in the public interest a one-off compensation payment was made to the landowner that could be used to cover the costs of removal. There was, however, no legal requirement by the landowner to actually do so and, especially in remote or unobtrusive locations, structures were often left untouched and became private property.

     In the case of seaside resorts in the south and east of England it was felt by government that it was in the national interest to expedite the process of clearance on municipal land and the War Office was prepared to meet bills for clearance directly. To that end, in November 1944 local authorities were encouraged to draw up schedules for the removal of works and submit quotes that could then be assessed and authorised by the War Office’s Lands Branch. Once the military had declared defence works redundant, a two-stage process followed: an initial phase of site clearance to make seafronts safe and accessible, then full ‘reinstatement’, which saw the full removal of defences and areas returned to their pre-war condition. 

     On the ground some work was already in hand during 1944, with army engineer parties clearing sections of beach for civilian access at Felixstowe, Aldeburgh and Thorpeness. The greatest impediment to the immediate opening of beaches for visitors was the presence of mines, and their clearance became the priority when the war was over. At Southwold sections of beach were declared clear throughout 1945, but parts remained mined into October the following year. At Felixstowe clearance began in earnest in March 1945 and involved the stripping of sand and shingle on beaches down to low water mark and to a depth of several feet. The stretch of coast from Felixstowe Ferry to Landguard Point was systematically cleared from north to south, a process that went on until the autumn. While clearance was ongoing the whole beach was closed and public access restricted to the area of the pier pavilion and the promenade, barbed wire being deliberately left in order to prevent civilians from approaching the work area. When whole beaches or discrete sections were declared clear of mines visitors were free to return and in the immediate years after the war holidaymakers took to Suffolk’s beaches surrounded by the relics of the wartime landscape. 

     The wholesale removal of fixed obstacles was a more involved undertaking, and the process was often protracted. Detailed schedules of redundant defences give some sense of the scale of work involved. At Aldeburgh this included over 5,000 metres of scaffolding, 4,500 metres of barbed wire and 4,000 anti-tank blocks, together with the removal of dragon’s teeth and pillboxes: works that in total would cost an estimated £25,000 to clear. In early 1945 the costs of the removal of defences on the town’s land were submitted to the Lands Branch, who in turn requested a more detailed assessment of the work. There was then a delay until the summer of 1946 while this paperwork was complied, the town clerk later explaining that the Borough Surveyor was simply overworked and that they had instructed an outside firm of surveyors ...

A Very Dangerous Locality by Rob Liddiard