Striking Gold

No matter where in the country I might end up on my travels, one thing can be sure - you're never too far from one of these. In total 1,563 Royal Observer Corps monitoring posts (ROC posts for short) were commissioned, manufactured and submerged 14ft below ground in strategic points all across the British Isles during the cold war era between the early 50's to the early 90's. In the event of a nuclear attack, they would collectively monitor the country safely hidden from the surface.

When stumbling upon one one of these unassuming sites, the same layout comprises of a protruding access shaft, and two air vents covered by downward-sloping louvres above ground which lead to sliding metal shutters below ground to control air flow during contamination by radioactive fallout. They would usually contain bunk-beds and a desk to host up to four personnel at a time, and had basic electrical supply but no plumbing systems. Luckily they were of course never forced into full service, and today most posts lie derelict and abandoned.

As the landscapes have changed around them in the years following the cold war, many that I have found now sit within the boundaries of golf courses, farmers fields, nature reserves and water-fronts. Approximately half of those built have been demolished, either on stand-down by the ROC or by private owners in subsequent years. Most landowners tightly seal them to avoid vandalism, but sometimes you strike gold and find one that's open for you to have a climb inside to see what's left behind. Unfortunately a trend has emerged over the years whereby youths set fire to them causing total destruction below ground, so some can just be a charred carcass inside.

Whilst it'd require a lot of effort to remove them entirely, some no longer exist at all on ground level and you can often find yourself wondering if you're in the correct spot to begin with. It can be a risk setting out to visit them for this very reason, as there's usually around a 75% chance that it's either been locked up or demolished. So far I've visited around half a dozen that are still intact and worth photographing. The sheer over-engineered construction of these bunkers means that, provided nobody has sought their destruction, they remain in fantastic condition having braved the elements remarkably well. The steel doors have a spring-latch system that more often than not opens as smoothly as the day they were installed, and I've yet to come across one with ladders that I wouldn't trust to use. Even in the worst of conditions they were clearly made to last. I imagine that this will be one of the most long-term documentary projects for me, as i doubt anyone has ever travelled to every single one that's survived the test of time.

This blog post is a preview of a handful of the treasures I've seen so far whilst visiting these hidden time capsules. Eventually I'll get around to posting an in-depth look at some of the best posts I've seen. You can also find information on how to visit preserved examples across the UK here.

The Danny

I had the pleasure of being given a tour around the Daniel Adamson over the weekend by the gents volunteering on the project. The last surviving steam-powered tug to be built on the Mersey, believed to be the oldest, operational Mersey-built ship anywhere in the world. Currently moored at sutton weaver during off peak season.

Shown below, the first photograph is mine, taken inside the newly restored cabin, the black & white photo shows it during its prime in the mid 1900's - note how accurately it has been restored, even down to the same patterned fabric on the carpets and chairs. Final photograph shows how bad a state it was in before the heritage lottery fund kickstarted the project in 2015.

Finally, below the deck the controls, engine and mechanics have all being painstakingly restored to original working order. Only a fraction of what's here has been modernised, meaning that she runs essentially in the exact same was as she did when she first left the shipyard in 1903.

For more information on the Danny and her journey from beginning to end, visit https://www.thedanny.co.uk/unique-story

Northern Momument #19

Northern Monument #19. The Coronation Tower of Edward VII. A former lookout tower on Wales' most northerly point, making it the northern-most structure in the entire country. Built by a local sea captain to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, it is said that the captain used the tower during his retirement to watch the ships go by, earning it the local title of ‘the summer-house’. It’s easy to see why this particular point was chosen; as it shares the same vantage point as the iron-age hillfort on Dinas Gynfor that came before it. From here you have stunning uninterrupted views of the Skerries, Middle Mouse, East Mouse, Point Lynas and on a clear day across to the Isle of Man, 70km to the north. It has stood the test of time having braved 117 years of coastal winds, and whilst it may be a testament to one man’s crafting skills, its foundations now lie mostly in ruin, with the interior of the structure comprising mostly of rubble and cracked masonry. Sadly this may be the least likely structure in the project so far to remain standing beyond another generation.

Then & Now

1959 - 2019. The long-abandoned Barrow for Tarvin train station that once linked passengers on the Manchester Central & Chester Northgate line until it closed in 1953 due to being quote: 'unremunerative'. The above image is the only archive photograph that matches this angle and was taken six years after its closure. (Original viewpoint is now obscured by trees). In the late 60's the west-bound line was removed and the track became a single bi-directional line on which infrequent trains still operate between Chester & Manchester today.

Ancient Panorama

It's easy to forget some of the wonderful places you've visited until you start to sieve through your archive and uncover the photos waiting to be found. The sun was blinding on this day in Mallorca but that allowed me to shoot some landscapes hand-held which is almost unthinkable in the UK. Taken from inside Capdepera fortress, a 1700 year old castle constructed by the Romans and eventually rebuilt in the fourteenth century on the remains of a Muslim village. Fast forward to the present day and the view from up here is still almost entirely unchanged.

Then & Now

1974-2018. Plas Mawr, formerly known as Cwrt y Ceidrim, is a substantial 16th century storeyed house that sits beneath the rolling hills of the Brecon Beacons in South Wales. After falling into severe ruin over the last 100 years, in 2002 it was recorded as being derelict but awaiting restoration, which was delayed indefinitely due to planning disputes. Fast forward to the present day and seemingly out of nowhere this wonderful property was revealed from the scaffolding after being carefully restored from dereliction over the last decade. It sold on the market in the second half of last year. How anyone could put so much time and effort into restoring such a place and not then live in it is beyond me!

Time Capsule

I've visited some real time capsules in my time, but this one ticks almost every box imaginable. Fabric was produced at this mill as far as back as the late 17th century, and was once the driving force behind the local community producing the highest quality tweed. Its protection from the outside world is thanks in part to the flowing water that prevents it from being easily accessed - only by using fallen trees as a walkway can you get to see the treasures up-close.

History Preserved

In July last year I took the journey 12ft underneath the city to visit one of the most unique and under-appreciated wartime air raid shelters in the UK. This was no ordinary bomb shelter - reinforced with thick concrete and spanning about ten times longer than the average design, this was perhaps one of the safest places in the whole city. More than a dozen entrances lined up adjacent to a large building where thousands of people were working towards the war effort. In the event of a bombing raid they would rush underground and see it through, often for hours at a time. Amongst them we now know was a talented individual who decided to pass time by drawing those around him using only a stick of black charcoal. All entrances were heavily sealed following the war, and the artwork forgotten for seven decades before one of the entrances was uncovered. This was both a blessing and a curse - whilst I felt extremely privileged to have seen inside this place, I was far too aware of how delicate this artwork was. It would simply wipe off on your hand if you tried, and all it would take is one bad-egg of a person to destroy them forever. I didn't post anything about my explore or share it online whilst I knew it was still accessible as I didn't want to draw any attention, but I've now seen that the single entrance has been sealed and hopefully in the future somehow it can be preserved for future generations to see and appreciate.

Dotted Relics

This village chapel like hundreds scattered across rural Wales now lies crumbling at the road side having not held a congregation for many decades. For centuries these little buildings were one of few places for secluded families to get together, and they would often host the only local phone and post boxes for several miles. It wasn't until religious culture started to diminish across the country in the early 20th century that there was no longer many congregations to serve, and as Wales became a more widely connected population the smaller chapels were the first to be abandoned as the community attended larger churches in the closest towns. I love finding new ones whenever I visit - no one chapel is ever the same as the last but they're almost always in surprisingly good condition given how long they've been left without any kind of maintenance.

Northern Monument #18

Northern Monument #18 – Basingwerk Abbey. Founded in 1132 by Ranulf de Gernon, 4th Earl of Chester, who had recently brought Benedictine monks from Savigny Abbey in southern Normandy. The abbey became part of the Cistercian Order in 1147 as a daughter house of Buildwas Abbey in Shropshire. Monks remained here for more than four centuries and passed through various patronage at Basingwerk until 1536, when abbey life came to an end with the dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII. It’s sole purpose as a protected ruin is now to mark the starting point of the North Wales Pilgrims Way.

Then & Now

1905-2018 Runcorn High Street. The most noticeable change here is the disappearance of the Scala ballroom on the right which was used as a club until 1987 hosting the likes of the Beatles on numerous occasions until it was converted to a bingo hall, closed in 2006 and was demolished six years later. Another criminal loss of local history made worse by the fact that all that's replaced it is bushes and weeds that somehow warrants permanent security fences.

1934-2015. My first one of the year is more of a 'then & then' tribute than anything else. This was once the main entrance to Whittingham asylum in Lancashire, UK. Whilst more than a hundred psychiatric institutions were established during the 1800s across the country, this was the largest. In total there was up to four thousand persons here during its peak including staff and patients. That's almost four times the size of a modern day city hospital, and when it closed in 1995 what was left behind was essentially an entire self contained village. Nowhere else I've ever visited has ever felt like this place - I still have memories of wandering it's corridors with the chilling echo of hundreds of crows in the distance who never seemed to stray far from the site right up until its last days when these few remaining buildings were torn down in 2016 to make way for new housing. This photo was taken on the day I decided to go and pay my last visit to what remained of this formidable place. Gone, but not forgotten.

Looking back on 2018

Looking over at the many places I've visited this year, this one stood out to me from back in march when I took on one of the trickiest solo explores I've ever done. This telephone exchange sits within some of the last remaining office buildings of a huge oil facility in northern England that was mostly demolished after the company was acquired around the turn of the century. With reports of this place having all taken place last year and then falling quiet, this was a bit of a stab in the dark and upon arrival it seemed that its location smack-bang in the middle of one of the UK's biggest industrial districts had lead to it being secured at basically all access points. The flood of unwarranted visitors must have clearly prompted the land owners to properly seal the site, with 10ft high gates and cameras on each bridge over the brook running between me and the buildings. After walking across a handful of rubble-filled patches of land leading to nowhere, rather than turn around and call it a day I decided to figure out the route of the old pipeline, and used the marshland to slowly but surely find a way in with water up to my shins and soggy socks making it all the more interesting. Once I could see the buildings it was clear that whilst the site was derelict, it was still connected to the processing plant next door and staff used the old roadways for access and even lunch-breaks sat in their vans. I even saw one fella in an orange jumpsuit and hardhat taking a ride on his pushbike! One glance from these guys and it'd be game over. Long story short, I ended up shimmying along an industrial bridge on my stomach to avoid being seen, whilst duck-and-diving more than a few times along an embankment before finally two hours later making it inside the buildings. If this was in winter, I wouldn't have had much daylight left to take any photographs! But gladly I had time to dry my socks whilst photographing this charming old secluded place that's decayed nicely without interruption thanks to its placement far away from the eyes of the public. It felt like a real mission-impossible this one, and maybe that's what people would consider 'real' exploring, either way it definitely felt like an achievement that's for sure.

Happy Holidays!

Better late than never - I hope all followers and wandering visitors to this page had a jolly old Christmas, however or wherever you celebrated it across the world. I didn't have any festive-themed photographs to post until I found the santa train today whilst photographing a railway carriage yard. No word of a lie - wasn't even expecting to find this on my trip! So here you go :)

Still Defending

Rather than focusing too much this year on many of the big places catching everyone's attention I've found myself admiring some of the locations that hide stories from our history right underneath our noses. In August I walked the northern bank of the River Mersey alongside what was once RAF speke, where thousands of aircraft were built and stationed during WW2. It's vulnerability was clear from the outset, and these pyramid anti-tank barriers were placed on the banks of the river to protect the site in case of an amphibious German invasion. The home guard were also stationed inside Pillboxes around the perimeter of the airfield, all of which were so heavily fortified that they still exist today, long after the airbase returned to civilian use.

Then & Now

1915-2017. Hale lighthouse, a landmark on the river Mersey that I can see from outside my house on a clear day, standing alone where the southernmost part of Merseyside faces the river. Originally a bathing house stood here at Hale point, but a busy maritime era at a time when hundreds of ships were using the water to supply goods each day to and from Liverpool meant that it was converted into a lighthouse in 1838, which was then extended to the current larger tower in 1906 that could be seen from as far as 40 miles away. Eventually the Manchester Ship canal became a safer and more reliable choice for the larger modern ships, and the lighthouse was no longer required by 1958 when it was decommissioned. The original lenses and main light unit can be seen today in the maritime museum at the Albert Dock.

Then & Now

1981-2017. The Grand Cinema ( known at the time as the grand casino/bingo hall ). This particular section has remained remarkably intact, so much so that its hard to imagine how so much time had passed with so little changing, especially considering that this room has gone almost two decades without use.

Opened originally as a car showroom in the early 1920's, it was repurposed as an ornate modern cinema in 1938, and operated for three decades until its final showing, Sean Connery's "Thunderball". Like almost all cinemas and theatres of this kind it saw later use as a bingo hall before closing, and whilst some sections were used more recently as a casino there is no longer any plans in place to secure its future. As British seaside resorts attempt to evolve in order to survive, it's somewhat inevitable that the old eventually loses ground in favour of the new. Unless the wetherspoons pub chain pick this one up, I doubt it'll be saved any time soon.

Northern Monument #17

Ponchin Mausoluem, known as ‘The Poem’, is a family mausoleum designed by the chemist and industrialist Henry Davis Ponchin in 1882. Built in a classic neo-norman style, it later became the traditional resting place for the Aberconwy family. Follow tag #northernmonuments on instagram to see the project so far.

Helsby Hill - November '18

On a last minute unplanned trip on a cold friday evening I decided to take a short trip west to Helsby hill in Cheshire to test out some new equipment I'd recently invested in. As usual, I intended to be back before sunlight but was thoroughly glad that I stayed to witness the landscape changing before me, even if I had to find my way back in total darkness!

Helsby is widely known to have been a hillfort during the bronze ages, and settlements here are believed to have first been established as far back as 4000 BC. With wide open views of the surrounding landscape spanning over to Runcorn, Chester & Ellesmere port, it is easy to see why many have chosen this spot as a safe refuge over the centuries. Its sandstone foundation remains largely unchanged and is now protected by the national trust. In 1970 a trig point was placed on the hill to for surveying purposes.

100 yards inland from the edge of the cliff face is a little known relic of cold-war Britain. A nuclear bunker, or ROC post, still lies dormant upon the hill surrounded by private farmland. Up until around 20 years ago it was still in pristine condition despite having been decommissioned, but unfortunately has since been fire damaged inside, leaving nothing but burnt ash and rubble for explorers to find. These were placed across the British Isles to monitor the event of a nuclear attack from Russia, and spots such as this were chosen for their vantage points and strategic location. This, however has to be the most dramatically positioned bunker I've seen yet. One can only imagine what the views across the Mersey estuary would have been like if the worst actually came to happen!

11.11

Today marks the 100th Armistice day since the end of the 1st World War at 11am on 11th November 1918. More than 700 thousand British men were killed during the grueling four year conflict that saw the world at war with itself for what was once naively said to be the 'war to end all wars'. Today, we paid a small personal tribute to my Great Grandfather Edward Roberts who served in the Royal Field Artillery from 1915-1917 in Europe. He survived the war but not unscathed, with permanent damage to his upper arm that stayed with him for the rest of his life. The bayonet pictured is one of the only family heirlooms we have left from the era. Standard issue from the war, this was once most likely attached to end of a Lee Enfield rifle for close conflict. It is unknown whether or not the blade was ever used in action. Edward's main duties would have been to transport the artillery trailers across to the frontlines via horse to provide support for the British Army. The horse that he served his time with during the war was unfortunately killed from it's injuries, and I am told he often spoke fondly of it until he passed away some 42 years later, with his wife Mary following him to the grave not long after. Their own spoken words still to this day read on the gravestone; 'Goodnight, God Bless'.

Grotto In The Woods

The headless preying monk. Found within what was once the grounds of a post-medieval abbey, where a long established family of Roman Catholic baronets are said to have built this extravagant folly with its unique religious stone carvings in the mid 18th century. A closed order of Benedictine nuns eventually took over the estate and are thought to have used this bizarre location for secluded worshippings. They left some time in the mid 1970's, however most are now buried closely together outside the folly in the dense woodland that surrounds it. Is this a chair? Or is it a carved art piece made to immortalise the practise of the monks who once resided here? The mystery is possibly what makes this place so intriguing. You'd be forgiven for thinking this place was some kind of film set - the fact that it even still exists without any form of protection is a wonder in itself.