Saturday, 4 January 2014


I've long been fascinated in pillboxes. You can find these concrete structures almost anywhere. Dotted along the coast, on a railway embankment or rather incongruously plonked in the middle of a field.

There they stand, as defiantly as they did when they were built in 1940. Silent and stubborn reminders of the time Britain was under genuine threat.

This perfect example is at Paglesham in Essex, patiently guarding the River Roach.

Pillboxes are now an integral feature of our landscape. Sometimes they will be covered in graffiti and sealed up, but usually you can squeeze inside them, trying to avoid the scary array of litter you find in there, and gaze out through the loopholes. It is impossible not to think of the people who manned these often isolated posts and not to feel how very exposed and vulnerable they are despite their solidity.

Inland these would have been vital in helping halt any invasion, and a quick look on Wiki tells you there were an incredible 28,000 of them built. Such was the fear of invasion.

My first memory of seeing and clambering inside a pillbox was at St Laurence’s Bay in Essex as a child. Although I knew what it was, I doubt whether I understood the real importance of it.
Over the years I’ve spotted so many, sometimes in different shapes, but usually that familiar hexagonal pillbox shape, hence the name!

Often they are disguised to blend in with their surroundings, like the rock shaped ones on the coast of Portland in Dorset and further along at Chesil Beach, I came across one all on its own, still staring out to sea, covered in little stones to look like the beach.

Clever camouflaging at Portland.

Lone pillbox at Chesil Beach, note the stones covering it.

I remember the dramatic ones, perched high up on the cliffs, near Folkstone, the many dotted along the fields next to the old road to Chelmsford and the still complete pillbox dumped in the sea by coastal erosion at the foot of Naze Tower in Walton-on-the-Naze. There is a also a perfect example, guarding the River Colne near Colchester, that is proudly maintained by the Mill Race Garden Centre. 

Stranded on the beach at Walton, you can really see how far the coast has eroded in the last 70 years.

Re-enactors at the carefully preserved pillbox at Mill Race, giving a real sense of how they were used.

But perhaps the most curious I’ve seen is the one hidden behind a wall on Southend seafront. Once forming a gateway to the gasworks, the gorgeous Victorian brickwork hides a deadly secret! All you notice is a strange gap in the wall, perhaps just a missing brick lost over the years. But take a peep behind the wall and there you will see a hidden pillbox, and you realise that gap would have once housed a machine gun.

The innocent looking Victorian wall on Southend seafront. But check out that gap!

Looking behind the wall reveals the secret! The ingeniously hidden pillbox!

Whenever I see pillbox, I stop and explore and pause for a moment to contemplate. So next time you go wandering the fields and coast paths keep an eye out for these poignant concrete symbols of our past.

A windswept tree has managed to grow around this pillbox near Abbotsbury in Dorset. Gives you a feel of the often exposed and rather drafty locations they were placed.

This poor pillbox at Mersea Island in Essex is starting to sink, proving they really do become part of the landscape.

A peep through the loophole of one of the pillboxes at Portland, giving a sweeping view across the coastline.

Unusual circular pillbox at Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset, again a victim of erosion, but still standing firm.

A spectacular one looking towards Worbarrow Bay, another of Dorset's amazing collection of pillboxes!

The fantastic photographer Marc Wilson has dedicated a whole project to the subject of coastal pillboxes and their relationship with the landscape, called The Last Stand. Check out his beautifully shot photographs of not only Britain’s pillboxes, but further afield across Europe.

There is also a website featuring a comprehensive study of pillboxes. Check this one out for all the info you need to know!

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