Architecture: War veterans hiding in the undergrowth - Pillboxes were built to defend the nation. Now many are hen coops, or pigsties. We should preserve them as historical treasures, says Patricia Cleveland-Peck

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The Independent Culture
MOST of us are familiar with pillboxes: those squat little concrete buildings dotted around the countryside, many of which are overgrown by brambles and have merged gradually into the landscape. Most know, too, that they had something to do with the Second World War. Far fewer people appreciate the historical importance that makes the 5,000 or so which remain worth preserving.

The last batch of pillboxes was built 50 years ago. They are the last military fortifications Britain is likely to construct. They bring to an end a direct line of fortification that began with the Romans.

In many cases the sites chosen are the same. One sees pillboxes within the Roman fortification of Pevensey Castle, East Sussex; pillboxes on the 14th-century site of Bodiam Castle in the same county; and several constructed within old Martello towers from the Napoleonic wars.

The purpose of the pillbox was to protect a gunner while offering him a good field of fire. The concept was developed in the First World War and pillboxes were first used successfully by the Germans in the battle of Langemarc in 1917. Constructions of similar circular shape were subsequently built by the British in Norfolk and Suffolk.

In the Second World War they were first used by the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders. Hundreds were later built across southern England as part of an anti-tank defensive system devised to counter a possible invasion. The plan was to create continuous defensive lines, following topographical features such as waterways, to safeguard not only the coastal area of Britain, but also London and the Midlands, from invaders.

Pillboxes varied from the one-man Tett Turret to big emplacements for two- pounder anti-tank guns. The most common shape was hexagonal.

The Royal Engineers surveyed and decided on the sites and then issued orders to local contractors to build them, at costs varying from pounds 30 to pounds 200. Vast amounts of cement and steel were required and bed springs were used to reinforce the concrete.

The work was often done by volunteer labourers using their own tools, who were paid a 'dole'. On the coast the work was not without danger, as the gangs often came under enemy fire.

All pillboxes were camouflaged, either with green and brown patterns or by being disguised as something completely different. Oliver Messel, the theatrical designer, helped to transform some of them into ice-cream kiosks, garages, dockside cranes and railway wagons. One pillbox, by the railway at Ilminster, looked like a coal shed, complete with shovels and wheelbarrows

on top, while another passed for a removal van.

Humour was not absent. A kiosk at Woking was lettered 'Proprietor Hyam Ready', while another bore a poster advertising 'Hotel Continental - A warm welcome for visiting troops'. There were even dummy pillboxes.

Unfortunately the pillboxes were virtually obsolete almost as soon as they were built, since they were designed for an invasion that never came. Because of this they have acquired a slightly ridiculous image, along with the Home Guard, which manned many of them.

Today pillboxes serve as garden sheds, pigsties, hencoops and hides for bird-watchers. One is used as a petrol store at Bustard Flying Club, Old Sarum, and at Beaulieu, Hampshire, another has been transformed into a dairy room and is now protected as a listed building.

Moves are afoot to list others as well. Henry Wills, author of Pillboxes (published by Leo Cooper but sadly out of print), has worked tirelessly to catalogue pillboxes for more than 25 years. His list has been passed to the Royal Commission on the Historic Monuments of England for the National Building Record. Mr Wills is also preparing a list for English Heritage, visiting each site to assess its value.

Local councils are also beginning to take an interest. Hampshire leads the way with its Defence of the Realm tourist project, which lists defences of all periods. Following a petition by local residents, Ribble Valley Borough Council is considering listing a pillbox at Whalley, Lancashire.

Members of the public could help to preserve pillboxes by bringing good specimens to the attention of local authorities and archaeology clubs or trusts. Pillboxes should not be knocked down unnecessarily for two reasons. First, the majority swept across the country in a series of defensive lines, so the ensemble is more important historically than the individual components; second, time may prove that there is architectural merit in the stark simplicity of design of these odd little buildings.

(Photograph omitted)