Whitesheet, Stourhead: “I Open at the Close”

Whitesheet Hill.. the chalk downland high above the Stourhead Estate. One of the most impressive groups of archaeological sites in NT South West Region.

Good to highlight the earliest and the latest there.

Whitesheet has a 5,700 year old Neolithic causewayed enclosure. The earliest type of archaeological earthwork generally seen in Britain…. but then… in stark contrast to this  and just a few steps away ….an abandoned Cold War monitoring post.

The first monitoring post was built in 1956 and the last was closed in 1991.

I gave my talk at Brean Down Cafe and included my usual  Whitesheet comparison of ancient and modern archaeology…This time, it caused Ian to approach me and to begin speaking of nuclear war.

As a teenager, he had been an air cadet and saw an advert for trainee recruits for the Royal Observer Corps.

After WWII, many of the men who had watched for German planes, were retrained for the changed circumstances of the Cold War… but by the late 70s they were reaching retirement and there was a need for fresh blood…….

A few weeks later, we met outside Stourhead reception and Kim took us in the NT landrover: turning at the Red Lion, along the droveway and up the steep gradiant to the summit of Whitesheet.

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The Bronze Age round barrow with Colt Hoare’s excavation dimple on top, its quarry ditch cutting the edge of the faint ancient earthwork of the Early Neolithic causewayed enclosure.

We crossed the stile by the Neolithic enclosure and I mentioned the way the Bronze Age round barrow cuts the Neolithic ditch…1400 years between the two events. On top of the mound is a dimple marking the place where the then owner, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, cut a shaft to find the 4000 year old burial.

That was c.1810, but in the grass below can be traced a brick outline where an observer building was built in the 1940s, looking out towards the US Zeals Air Force base.

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From the top of the barrow mound, the outline of the WWII observer post.

Great views from here across to Mere and down to Stourhead House within its park far below.

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The view towards the Iron Age hillfort.

Ian led us to the concrete hatch.  ” there were 12 of us in our Royal Observer Corp Unit. Eight were men in late middle age, two were women in their 20s and me and and another guy were 18″. When there was an alert, the first four to arrive at the observer station occupied the bunker … we locked it from the inside and the rest went home.”

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The remains of the Cold War monitoring post. Two ventilation shafts. The furthest attached to the concrete bunker hatch which has now been welded shut for safety. To the right are metal tubes that supported the blast detector and radiation fallout monitor.

I imagined the situation.. saying goodbye to families….collecting their rations from the Yeovil HQ….showing their security passes to get them through the checkpoints….the world in turmoil….high on the downs and the thick steel hatch sealed.

There were one or two metal pipes jutting from the ground. “This was where the radio aerial plugged in. Here we fixed a blast detector and over here the radiation fall-out monitor. Beside the hatch we placed the photographic unit which measured direction and angle of the nuclear detonation flash.”

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A plan of the monitoring post.

A vertical metal ladder took you down to the bunker. A table with the monitoring dials and two beds. In an alcove was a chemical toilet and store. Everyone had dosimeters and the least contaminated went up to check the monitoring equipment.

“A loudspeaker in the bunker ticked all the time…and when it stopped you waited for an announcement ….or if your equipment detected a detonation you passed the information on to HQ and the other 20 stations, scattered on hilltops around Yeovil”

I wondered how long they were supposed to last out for.

“Just 21 days, we were only given rations to last that long..”

He said that the Royal Observer Corp was mobilised for regular three day practice sessions. It was very cold and damp in the bunker but they got on well as a group.

From time to time they popped out for chips and refreshment at the local pub.

We looked out across the cross-ridge dyke …towards the hillfort and listened to the wind across the grassland.

Thinking back…New Year’s Eve 1979 .. Soviet troops invade Afghanistan..the political gloom of 1984 ….then 1989 and the fall of the Berlin wall …relief that this concrete pit was never properly used.

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We pondered what might have been…. and hugged the grandeur of the Wiltshire countryside.

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