Heritage impacts of the rationalisation and disposal of the defence estate

The National Audit Office has just published a review of the Defence Estate Optimisation (DEO) programme. Aside from the overarching conclusions that the programme isn’t going as well as it might do – in terms of speed, cost, reduced income generation and overall project management and complexity – the more interesting reading comes from a reminder of some of the facts and figures about the defence estate of relevance for heritage management and natural landscape management.

The defence estate comprises 344,200 hectares of land in the UK, which comprises 1.5% of the country’s landmass.

The built estate comprises 75,400 hectares (32% of the overall holding) containing offices, technical facilities, and storage and support for military equipment and inventory. It consists of 900 sites, which have roughly 96,000 buildings including houses, technical assets, such as storage units and training facilities, and other assets such as runways and electrical networks.

In broader landscape management terms, the rural estate comprises 157,500 hectares (68% of the overall holding) and is used for training and ranges. This land includes designated and protected areas including 13 national parks, 33 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and 11 National Scenic Areas.

Around 40% of the Department’s infrastructure is more than 50 years old and it regards 30% as not being in an acceptable condition.

The DEO programme aims for a reduction of the built estate by 30% by 2040.

The Ministry of Defence looks after significant heritage assets in terms of historic buildings/sites and landscapes – the ongoing optimisation and disposals programme presents both challenges and opportunities for its historic environment holdings in terms of ongoing maintenance and renewal needs, survival or protection, and adaptation and change under new management.

Dartmouth Castle: Guidebooks

1951 (repr. 1954)

Dartmouth Castle was placed in the care of the Office of Works in 1909, although the War Office retained the right to use the structure. It was finally placed in State Guardianship in 1970.


B.H. St. John O’Neil wrote the first guide to the castle in 1934, followed by a paper guide in 1951. It was followed by a Ministry of Public Buildings and Works souvenir guide in 1965. This was written by A.D. Saunders. The printer was W.S. Cowell of the Butter Market, Ipswich. This guide took the format: Introduction; Early Defences; The Building of the Castle; Kingswear Castle; Bayard’s Cove; Sixteenth-Century Repairs and Additions; The Civil War; Later History; Description.

1988 (2nd ed.)

Saunders’ guide continued into the period of English Heritage. It was reprinted in 1983, with a second edition in 1988. This carried the branding of Gateway supermarkets. The format was altered, starting with a description and then the history. An expanded third edition appeared in 1991.

1991 (1993)

Audley End Pillbox

Audley End © David Gill

A pillbox dominates the grounds of Audley End. It was constructed in 1940 as part of the General Headquarters line of defence, and was placed adjacent to the Adam Bridge. (Further details here.)

Secret places, future spaces

WP_20160118_11_36_37_ProI took a walk yesterday around the eastern perimeter of the former RAF station at Oakington, along the new(ish) guided busway which links St Ives with Cambridge.  This is itself built on the trackbed of a former railway line, features of which can still be seen in villages along the route.  This is a complicated landscape, where aside from the historic and prehistoric remains in surrounding villages and fields, the meeting of past, recent past, present and future are being played out as the area gradually morphs into a newly created town, called Northstowe.

WP_20160118_11_37_16_ProMilitary sites are by their nature of being off limits interesting – they have their own language of architecture and design, and are usually hidden away from view.  The site at Oakington has been airfield and barracks, and following decommissioning as a military site saw a new lease of life as an immigration reception centre during the 1990s.  It is now about to be transformed again as part of a new settlement designed to ease pressure on housing in and around Cambridge.  The site has come on to the radar (pun intended) of urban explorers (urbex), and fans of derelict and abandoned places, as well as military historians.  It can still be an interesting journey on the road which runs around the outside of the western perimeter of the site, linking Oakington and Longstanton – as the route is not officially designated as an open highway.  Occasionally Police still stop people driving along the road, and on some maps the route still does not appear.

In advance of the new town appearing, the abandoned railway line has metamorphosed into a new type of hybrid transport corridor, dedicated to buses, and having its own unique architectural design language.  Tracks and footpaths in the surrounding fields have been opened up in a programme of recreation access and interpretation – and the example shown is an interesting example which blends past, recent, present and future.  A hybrid heritage sign indeed which has already acquired the patina of age.



Dumbarton Castle

Dumbarton Castle © David Gill
Dumbarton Castle © David Gill

Dumbarton Castle has an impressive setting dominating the river Clyde. King George’s battery was named after King George II and dates to 1735 (noted on an inscription). The battery position was designed by Captain John Romer.

King George's Battery, Dumbarton Castle © David Gill
King George’s Battery, Dumbarton Castle © David Gill

The sentry box is similar to another of Romer’s design at Edinburgh Castle.

Military heritage and Sutton Hoo

Anti-glider trench at Sutton Hoo © David Gill
Anti-glider trench at Sutton Hoo © David Gill

Most visitors who walk round the site at Sutton Hoo will want to see the burial mounds. The very observant will notice some linear features cutting across the field. These are the remains of the anti-glider trenches to prevent an airborne attack to capture Woodbridge and the strategic port of Ipswich.

The trench system is easily seen on the aerial photograph taken at the end of the Second World War.

For such trenches in the news see here.

Anti-glider trenches at Sutton Hoo with the excavated ship-burial at the top of the picture. Source: Google Earth.
Anti-glider trenches at Sutton Hoo with the excavated ship-burial at the top of the picture. Source: Google Earth.

Waterloo Heritage

© David Gill
© David Gill

This June marked the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo. Veterans from the Scottish regiments returning home were granted land and one of the settlements on the island of Skye (near Broadford) is the appropriately named Waterloo.

Yet the Gaelic name for the settlement, Achadh a’Chùirn, ‘the field of the cairn’, acknowledges the prehistoric burial mound located at this location.

Heritage Signs: Commandant’s House

Chesters Roman Fort: Commandant’s House © David Gill

Foundations of buildings can be hard to understand and the Ministry of Works labelled individual buildings and features for visitors. This sign is placed on the east side of the ‘Commandant’s House’ at Chesters Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall (Northumberland).

Professor Eric Birley’s guide (Chesters Roman Fort, Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, 1960; sixth impression 1970) has a section on the ‘Commandant’s House and bath-house’ (p. 21). The building was excavated by John Clayton in 1843. The same terminology is also used on the fort plan.

Nick Hodgson’s guide (Chesters Roman Fort, English Heritage, 2011) has a section on the ‘Commanding officer’s house (Praetorium)’ (no. 4) and ‘Praetorium baths’ (no. 5). Indeed the sign ‘Commandant’s House’ is placed on what Hodgson defines as the ‘Praetorium baths’.

My 13th edition of Collingwood Bruce’s Handbook to the Roman Wall (1978) [ed. Charles Daniels] identifies the ‘House and baths of commandant’ (on the plan) but discusses ‘the commanding-officer’s house’ and ‘the commanding-officers’ [sic.] bath-house’ (p. 115). My 14th edition (2006; David J. Breeze) refers to the ‘commanding officer’s house’ (p. 203).

Saxon Shore Forts: Brancaster


Brancaster (Google Earth, 2010)

The Roman fort at Brancaster lies to the east of the village of the name on the north Norfolk coast. Numismatic evidence suggests that the fort was occupied in the 3rd century.

Landguard Barracks

Landguard_3967During our tour of Landguard Fort we were allowed to have access to the upper levels. These provided amazing views across the barracks (officers above, men below) towards the Port of Felixstowe container port. The channel for ships entering (or leaving) Harwich brings vessels close to the walls (and guns) of Landguard (note the position of the Stena Line ferry). The large arches on the left of the picture are the gun casemates, positioned to dominate the harbour mouth.

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