Wartime role for paint, pillboxes and leafy trees

In the Middle Ages, the Normans built their castles at Mitford, Morpeth and Bothal, where they controlled strategic crossings of the River Wansbeck.

Sunday, 9th December 2018, 3:32 pm

In 1940, the British army built pillboxes at the same places. The fundamentals of the landscape have a way of reasserting themselves in critical situations.

North of Morpeth, a deep belt of defences lay along the River Coquet. After that, apart from Eshott Airfield, there was not much until you were nearly into Morpeth.

The first pillbox covering the northern approach to the town was at East Lane End Farm, just south of the new northern bypass.

About half-a-mile further south, a second pillbox stood on an inside bend of the road, opposite Pottery Bank Court.

The Great North Road still went over Telford Bridge so the object was to protect that vital crossing.

The bridge itself was covered by a pillbox where William Turner Court is now, and by a wall loop on the other side of the road.

The army paid almost as much attention to minor routes as it did the A1, with pillboxes covering back roads at Bothal, Mitford, and even one on a footpath at Cottingwood Common.

There was also one behind Katerdene, on the lane from Fulbeck to Hebron, and another at Pegswood Moor. None of these was part of the Wansbeck stopline.

A fundamental assumption of stoplines was that you knew which direction the enemy was coming from.

It follows that most of the defences were on the south side of the Wansbeck so that the defenders could fire on the invading forces as they slowed to cross the river.

The defensive positions on Telford Bridge, therefore, as well as covering the Great North Road, also formed part of the Wansbeck line.

Orders required that there should be a road block or tank trap to obstruct the enemy, and that the pillbox should be behind it. So again, there was an assumption about which way the enemy was coming from.

Mitford Road is an interesting case. It doesn’t come in from the north, but if you were defending Morpeth, you had to defend that road.

At Mitford, a beehive pillbox covering the bridge over the River Font was on the north bank of the river, not the south.

Another beehive pillbox covered Low Ford Bridge. Like the one at Mitford, it was on the north bank of the river. What was being protected was not the river crossing as such, since the enemy was already south of the river, but the town of Morpeth.

A third pillbox sits high up on the bank above the middle school playing fields. It lies close to, but well below, the Old North Road, and was clearly meant to cover Mitford Road and the valley through which it runs.

Although Morpeth was originally the lowest bridging point on the Wansbeck, other bridges were built further downstream in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Two pillboxes of the lozenge type, both still extant, stand at each end of the Wansbeck Viaduct on the East Coast Main Line, and there were others at Sheepwash Bridge and on the railway bridge below Stakeford.

Except at Tranwell Airfield, there were few defensive installations south of Morpeth. One, however, which I remember seeing, but have not found recorded anywhere, was at Stannington Bridge. It was demolished when the road was dualled.

The threat of invasion was only one way in which the war affected the lives of people in Morpeth.

A wall in Copper Chare, beside St James’s Church, has a big yellow circle painted on it. It’s gas paint. In principle, if there was an attack with poison gas, the paint would change colour.

Information from an American website, there being no British ones, suggests that it would only have been effective against mustard gas, which is not really a gas, but a finely divided liquid. If a drop of it touched the paint, that spot turned red.

One day, at the top of Dogger Bank on the Mitford Road, my wife spotted the faint words ‘Warden Post’ on the doors of a former trap house. It had been stripped for repainting and was covered over again soon after. The wardens in question belonged to the ARP, short for Air Raid Precautions.

On a house wall in Manchester Street is the very faint trace of the letters EW, and another letter now unreadable. This was an Emergency Water Point in case the water mains were damaged.

In the entrance to the Bridge Street Dental Practice, behind the NatWest Bank, is an enamel ARP notice saying “Elec. Supply Co's Apparatus”.

The trees in Dacre Street are also silent memorials to that time. The late Miss Dorothy Daglish told me that during the war the army parked their lorries under them, to conceal them from enemy aircraft.

Finally, Gordon Arnott recently pointed out to me, as we stood on the Skinnery Bridge, a surviving concrete air-raid shelter behind a house in Mitford Road.

The Early Christian Landscape of the Wansbeck Valley, 48 pages, illustrated, is now on sale at Newgate News and Morpeth TIC, price £6.