Tracing the coastal defences from wartime

Setting off northwards from Blakemoor and the Cresswell Ponds, we come shortly to Hemscott Hill.

Monday, 1st August 2016, 9:05 am

The ‘solid’ geology of this area is the Middle Coal Measures — layers of coal in sequence with other rocks, typically shale, sandstone, siltstone and mudstone.

Druridge Bay is in part the mouth of a submerged valley. The solid geology only appears in headlands and offshore ledges. Otherwise, the coastal lands here consist of ‘drift’, mainly boulder clay, sands and gravels dumped by the glaciers and in meltwater streams and lakes, with wind-blown sand dunes along the coast.

So what is Hemscott Hill made of? It seems unlikely to be a very big sand dune. It could be an outlier of the solid geology, a small block uplifted between local faults, or — an intriguing possibility — a very large ‘erratic’ — a huge block of the coal measures strata, picked up by the ice and dumped where it is now.

Whatever the reason for its existence, although Hemscott Hill is only about 40ft high, it stands out in an otherwise low-lying landscape.

The little cottage that stands on top isn’t a cottage, but a pillbox. And although bare and functional inside, it looks as if someone cares for it and sweeps it out periodically.

The entrance is from the west side or back, and internal blast walls gave some protection from bullets and flying splinters. The embrasures face in all directions, larger ones with a concrete shelf inside to support the legs of a machine gun, and smaller ones suitable for rifles. And while from the outside they look as if they simply face outwards, some of them are angled to give a better command of the road. There is no living accommodation. It was merely a fighting platform, to be occupied as needed.

The beaches of the Northumberland coast made obvious landing grounds, and this little pillbox was merely one element in what was known as the Coastal Crust.

Ian Hall says: “The ‘crust’ was a continuous, but thin, line of defences along all vulnerable coastlines. Public access to beaches was prohibited, with the shoreline being strewn with barbed wire and mines.”

Its most obvious survival is the anti-tank blocks. They were arranged in neat double rows, but have been joggled and sometimes buried by storms and the sea. There was also an anti-tank ditch, now filled in, behind the dunes.

South of the pillbox, near Blakemoor House, there were two two-pounder anti-tank guns. Just to the north was a coastal battery mounting two 6ins guns, complete with Battery Observation Post and Nissen huts for the Royal Artillery gun crews.

A mile or so further on, near the Druridge Pools nature reserve, is a mysterious concrete structure, about the size of a double garage. Its distinguishing feature is three external concrete beams on an otherwise flat roof. There are two small ventilation holes on the seaward side, but all other apertures, if it had them, have been blocked up.

It can hardly have been for shoreline defence. Its view is blocked by the dunes, though it does stand opposite a small gap. It could have had another structure on top, but when you look down on it from the dune above, there is no sign of bolts or other fixings. The only protruding metal is what looks like an overflow pipe, just visible in the picture, near the left-hand corner.

It does not appear on the OS New Popular 1ins map of 1947, but this was last fully revised in 1921. Later corrections were only for things like roads. It would be unlikely for temporary wartime structures to be noted, and there was official reluctance to include what might be sensitive military information on publicly available maps.

It is, however, marked on the OS 1ins map of 1956, which was fully revised in 1952, giving a construction date of 1921-52. A wartime, or just pre-war, date is thus credible, but it is not listed in the Defence of Britain Archive.

Back to the Hemscott Battery, what was once a very substantial construction has disappeared almost without trace — a tribute to people's determination to return Britain to normality after the war.

The entry in the Defence of Britain Archive says: “Earthworks show the positions of the gun emplacements and other buildings ... Some fragments of concrete and brick can be seen, and more is probably buried.”

To understand what it was like, we have to go to the Blyth Battery at Blyth Links, with the difference that because of Blyth’s importance as a port, it has relics of both world wars.

As at Hemscott, there were two 6ins guns. The gun emplacement is a circular concrete pit about 15ft across. What looks like a beach shelter was put over it in the Second World War to protect the gun crew from aerial attack. Behind it are magazines, stores and shelters where the men could rest while waiting for action.

The grey building with a rotating turret on top was the First World War Battery Observation Post. This was superseded in the Second World War by the one on the right, which had up-to-date range-finding apparatus. The building behind it is a First World War pillbox, properly called a blockhouse.

Blyth thus gives us an idea of the scale of the wartime works at Hemscott Hill, of which all that remains now are the pillbox anti-tank blocks.

Further reading: Ian Hall, Relics of War, available at T&G Allan’s, and the website Defence of Britain Archive.