Shingle Street: Suffolk’s fortified coastscape.

On Sunday 18th January, I had the pleasure of attending the private viewing of Frank Watson’s Soundings from the Estuary at the M2 Gallery in Peckham. A fairly low-key event, there were a small number of images taken from Watson’s new publication of the same name and a spoken word performance from Germander Speedwell, a previous collaborator of the project. Soundings from the Estuary depicts the somewhat marginal landscapes of the Thames estuary, particularly from sites of abandonment around the Hoo peninsular. The eerie scenes of dereliction and decay amongst the waterscapes of the Thames immediately made me think of similar spaces that I had encountered along the East Anglian coast, especially that of the coastline running between Shingle Street and Bawdsey in Suffolk.I visited this area last October along with a fellow lover of marginal spaces , Rupert Griffith, where we walked and explored the heavily fortified beaches and cliff tops that ran between these two villages.

The coastline running from Suffolk down to Sussex was perceived as being the most vulnerable to invasion during the Napoleonic wars and so saw the construction of 103 Martello towers within this period. These huge, concrete cylinders have a certain proto-brutalist aesthetic about them. Standing some 12 meters high, the walls are around 2.5 meters thick and bear features. The towers generally consisted of three floors with a mounted gun positioned on the roof. Less than 50 Martellos remain standing in England, with many of the existing towers being converted into residential properties (shown below).

It is not only the remnants of 19th Century fortification that exists along this stretch of coast, however,  the area is littered with pillboxes, observation towers, batteries and anti-tank defences. Many of the pillboxes have made their way from the eroded cliffs into the sea and are now only accessible at low tide. Still, seeing fragments of these defences jutting out from the corrosive slate grey surf is an experience in itself. We were lucky enough to see the structures as both partially visible and in their entirety later on during low tide.

Further along the coast is the former site of RAF Bawdsey, which functioned as a radar station up until the early 1990s. Again, this space demonstrates the importance of the Suffolk coastline in maintaining Britain’s defence, further highlighting the perceived vulnerability of this particular section of the Anglian Coastline.

The triptych of defensive architectural styles that can be seen here allows one to reflect not only on the historical threat to these shores but on a more general continuity in the imagining of the coastscape as a marginal edgeland. As Watson’s photographic work demonstrates, much of the spaces around the southern coasts have, over time,  become littered with the detritus of military, industrial and residential waste, serving as expansive dumping grounds for everything that is undesired; sea forts, trolleys, burntout cars, concrete barges, condoms, nappies, chemicals, plastic bags. The huge blocks of concrete, crumbling steel and cement towers that have been allowed to remain in situ along this stretch of coastline are but further reminders of the scarring that many of our coastal spaces have endured as a result of their being peripheral.

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