I remember in an early episode of Band of Brothers, we see one of the young American soldiers taking a gun emplacement as they role into France: once the trench is secured, he drops a bag of dynamite down the barrel and we see it explode, rendering the gun useless. The image flickers across my mind as i stare down into the pit in front of me on the West coast of Jersey. Tortured steel lies rusted at my feet: a huge coastal gun, torn in half, it’s fifteen foot length burst open in the middle, with the sides peeled back like a banana.
It’s a scene at odds with the landscape surrounding me: rugged coastal walking, the waves crashing at the foot of the cliffs to my left, the scrub punctuated by paths and bushes to my right. Ahead of me, a broad circle of concrete sunk three feet into the ground, maybe forty feet across. At it’s centre, the remains of the gun. Four rusted rails that it would have been mounted on, then the barrel, thrown to one side and broken in half.
The steel is thick: maybe two inches, but heavily rusted. The rents in the metal that must once have been razor sharp and burning hot are dulled by time and seventy winters into no more than simply roughened edges. Today, the only heat is from the sun.
It’s incongruous: in my experience, in my world, steel has value. It’s rare to see such a substantial chunk of it left unclaimed, remote as it is. And, of course, this is no ordinary steel: it’s steel of memories, the fractured steel of Empire and defeat. Unconquerable steel of German might, wrought impotent by oxidation.
These giant guns are housed in museums these days, or held in pigment in sepia photos. The redevelopment of post war Britain took time, but in it’s path it swept away the tangible stains of war: the searchlights, the barb wire, trenches, uniforms and tanks. Not all of it: signs remain, but usually in each and concrete, not steel. No obvious guns.
I circle the pit, finding at one point a slope down, a subterranean doorway half filled with rubble overgrown by plants A control bunker maybe? Home now to rabbits and rubbish. The sunken pit fills my vision: later, as i fly out of the island, i look out of the window and recognise the coastline we are banking over. I can see the circle but this time the size of a coin, and juxtaposed with other, similar circles, forming a line down the coast. I realise that i would have been visible, even from this height, to someone staring down. Perspectives upon perspectives.
Steel and concrete are the bones of war. The concrete is everywhere: walls, bunkers, shelters. Along the coast, a series of blisters protrude from the sea walls: massive gun emplacements formed of poured concrete, the lines still visible where the days work ended and the next day began. Time has barely started to touch these structures: discoloured, for sure, and rusted where bare metal protrudes, but their skin is metres thick. Literally stone.
Indeed, often it’s the land that erodes around them: in Norfolk i remember the Pill boxes dotting the landscape, one particularly near our caravan, set back from the cliff top. When i visited last year, the cliff had gone, eaten away by the hungry sea, but the pill box remains, upside down where it must have tumbled down the cliff in a winter storm. I imagine in a hundred years it will still be there, but as the land retreats further it will be rolled around on the seabed, like a giant pebble. Polished by the sands.
And a Pill box is simply David to these Goliath structures.
Later that afternoon, i walk through the sand dunes, climbing the side of one. It’s a museum now and a coach bounces it’s way along a sandy track to disgorge it’s crowd of British pensioners for an afternoon of reminiscing and tea. I stay away from the crowd, stood on top of the mound, but something strange happens: as i stand there, buffeted by the wind, i hear something, like a distant tannoy, like a faint public service announcement, but emanating from the ground beneath me.
Exploration reveals the cause: an old air vent from the bunker emerges near my feet: through metres of concrete, the sound of Margaret and Ethel discussing their lunch is given a surreal and abstract quality. Juxtaposition of sound and space.
At another site, i enter a bunker, this one cleaned up and interpreted: six rooms in total, each in service of the ‘fighting’ room, the room at the front where the massive rusting gun still stands. One guard room, which has a machine gun port overlooking the doorway, two more for sleeping in, one for the extraction fan which circulates air (one can only imagine the noise and fumes when the guns fired) and one room for spent shell cases. A mini functioning fort, deep under cover, deep under stone.
Society takes a mixed view of these structures: it’s an evolving process and, let’s be honest, they have plenty of time to conclude the process. They’re not going anywhere. Some are open to the public: museums, housing memorabilia, signed and made safe. These are the historic face of Jersey: an island at peace with it’s past. Some are tolerated: their doors and ports sealed up, sat on seafronts, in villages, by the side of roads, but distressingly at the heart of modern life. I have tea and scones next to one, painted white like the proverbial elephant in the room, squatting uncomfortably on the best seat. Some are derelict and distant, far from town, left to rot: their doorways, once sealed, are often broken open so teenagers can smoke and drink inside, comfortable amongst the dead pigeons and urine.
One has been converted to a fish restaurant. I am unsure how: they’re not the type of structure to knock a new window into and no matter how much light we pump in, there’s something about concrete that absorbs the heat, that deadens the sound. One derelict site, the only one i see, shows faint signs that someone tried to demolish it. Pockmarks on it’s skin, but mere teenage acne. Not one percent of the job done.
I find no appeal in exploring the dereliction: the dark doorways into underground history are not sinister, just incongruous. There was no D Day landing here, no valiant action: to my knowledge, no young men died in these bunkers. Just got bored, watching for the day that Liberation came. If anything, they are an expression of futility, a memory of different times.
As i stand in the sun, think of the day there were built: a young man perhaps resting his hand on the freshly set concrete where my hand rests today: whilst my minds eye shows him in black and white, in reality the dirt under his nails was in colour. That’s the thing about history: we paint it into the past through fashion, media and language, forgetting that it was as real as our day today. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Away from the artefacts of war, the coastline is typical: cliffs, harbours, long beaches, tranquil bays. But tranquility that is hard won: almost every time i read about one of the piers or breakwaters, it’s a story of the sea washing away it’s predecessor. It’s a constant battle, erosion. Sometimes it happens fast, sometimes slow. But ever truthful, never ending.
At barely nine miles by five, Jersey makes up for in spirit what it lacks in stature: for eight hundred years a Crown Dependency, it’s part of the Great Britain, but separated by both water and government. A microcosm of it’s parent state, Jersey operates within it’s own rules: regulation, legal and cultural.
A sign proclaims that in my hotel, the surrender of the Germans forces was taken. They’ve probably redecorated since: the conference tables, water jugs and plasma displays are a ubiquitous token of modernity, lacking significance or locality. The reality of today displaces the significance of yesterday.
Seventy years on, the island continues to evolve: piers are washed away, the harbour expands, tourism prevails, financial services dominate. But evolve it must: the structures of today are the derelict concrete of tomorrow. What got us here may not get us there. The challenges for a small island in a global economy are not ones of territory: i cannot envisage anyone trying to steal the Channel Islands away from their protective neighbour, but rather of identity. As ubiquity steals our culture, the trappings of our heritage become simply museum pieces, remnants of a long lost past.
It’s right to remember, to celebrate, to move on, but it’s naive to assume that the past glory guarantees a glorious future. In a globalised society, opportunities are not free, and when your land mass is limited and your population ever more mobile, we have to strive to remain relevant.
I’ve loved my time on the island and will definitely be back, but i suspect there are challenges ahead that will require more than just bunkers and hardware to surmount. The challenge of relevance and permanence in the Social Age does not just apply to organisations: it applies to countries too. As people’s primary identity starts to shift away from simple geographically defined boundaries, the boundaries of cliff and sea that defined our past may not guarantee the cohesion of our community in the future.