Saturday, March 30, 2019

Ilminster, Somerset

‘The war’

In 1940 long defensive lines were constructed running across southern England to hold up an enemy advance in the event of an invasion. These lines, made of barbed wire defences, tank traps, and thick-walled concrete pillboxes, were extensive, but they had weak points where access routes crossed them. One such point was at Ilminster in Somerset, where, in those days, the A303 passed through the middle of the town. Ilminster itself was therefore fortified, with a ring of barbed wire and tank traps, some earthworks, 17 pillboxes (each with a machine gun), and a heavy gun emplacement.  As well as the machine gunners, there would be riflemen dug in, and altogether about 400 people (up to half of them local home guard members) were needed to man this complex, defend Ilminster, and, so it was hoped, play their part in repelling the invading force.* Parts of this defensive line still exist. This pillbox is on a public footpath that once formed part of one of the long entrance drives to Dillington House, connecting the mansion to the town. The thick concrete has survived well, and the polygonal structure still looks fit for purpose. Eighty years’ growth of moss, plus some ivy, only help to camouflage the box.

When I was a boy in the 1950s and 1960s, local pillboxes in Gloucestershire were somewhere to play. We all knew they had been built ‘for the war’, but the reality, that, if we’d been boys 20 years earlier and things had gone differently, our own fathers, or, more likely, grandfathers, might have been risking their lives defending them, hardly impinged.† Seeing such boxes now (and experiencing briefly the temptation to ‘play’ with them in another way, imagining not the brutality of war but the origins of brutalist architecture) brings one up short, as I’ve been brought up short by reconstructions of the First World War trenches in Piccardy or by exploring the formidable defences put up in Czechoslovakia, to no avail, in the late 1930s in the hope of protecting the country from invasion by the Nazis. I hope I’ll never have to confront this brutality in person, and that neither my son nor my nieces will either. All politicians should look at such buildings, use their sometimes limited imaginations, and reflect.

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* Information panels on site tell the story of these defences. I’m indebted to them.

† Back then, c. 1960, memories of World War II were close for adults; everyone knew what you meant when you said ‘the war’.


Chris Partridge said...

Us kids used to play in the pillboxes along the Thames south of Oxford in the 1950s, though we never stayed inside long because of the smell.
It is tempting to regard them as precursors to Brutalism but they were rarely even visible, being merged into hillsides or hedgerows or even disguised as summer houses or fisherman’s huts. There is a fascinating article on the subject here:

Stephen Barker said...

I have to say the slots for firing from the pill box look rather small. I have read in the past that many of these structures were probably more dangerous to their intended users as they were to the enemy due to poor design and construction. As you say they were fortunately never put to the test and are now part of the nations military heritage extending back to iron-age hillforts.

Even as a child in the 1960s WWII was present either as films on TV or as comic books set in WWII. Even mainstream comics had characters such as Capitan Hurricane still fighting the war.
Is it any wonder that some of the older generations look back nostalgically to the WWII as it was what they grew up with even if they were to young to experience it first hand.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Hear!Hear! My brother and I also used to play in a local pill-box, until the floor became flooded and the debris dumped in it became too bulky. I believe that that one was to protect Birmingham Airport, but the growth of tall trees around it made it less formidable. One locally here used prodigal amounts of concrete and cheap brick - it must have been a boom time for the concrete and cheap brick suppliers, even if they didn't get paid straight away.There must be a big hole somewhere where they found all the sand and stuff needed, all at once, for the emergency. Please, no more wars if we can help it!

Joe Treasure said...

Interesting to reconsider these structures in the context of contemporary events (as your piece allows us to do); also to see this one, in the context of your blog, set alongside another polygonal gatehouse intended for more benign use, both now decomissioned or repurposed and melding into the landscape.