The Fascination of Concrete…

The physical remains of our past are generally beautiful to look at. I don’t know whether it’s a result of time, antiquity or our imagination. Ancient churches are one thing, but even standing stones look wonderful, as they defy the passing years. Dare I say it, but those terribly eroded rocks in the muddy reservoir at Tottiford on the edge of Dartmoor, looked good. But no, this doesn’t seem to apply to concrete. Cement, yes: I love the soft crumbly lime mortar of medieval towers and churches, but that’s quite different, to concrete. Concrete. It’s what the modern world’s built of and I have to say I don’t like it much. But then I didn’t use to like eating live oysters, or asparagus, come to that – and I quickly learned the error of my ways, helped no doubt by the freely flowing hormones of puberty (which shape more than just your dangling bits).

So I’ve decided to start liking concrete, and it has been, I have to concede, quite a slow process. I can remember being taken for a drive along the M1 when it was first opened. I was at school and my father took me out one weekend in his new car, a Lancia I think it was. In those days the 70 mph limit hadn’t been invented and we hit 125 somewhere north of Watford. Then a Reliant Robin three-wheeler wobbled into our path and it all nearly came to a sticky end. My father grimly muttered something about the use of mirrors. People, men especially, were more Victorian and generally buttoned-up in the 1950s.  But I’m starting to digress.

M1 Motorway bridge at Northampton

Bridge carrying the M1 over the A43 near Northampton.

I recently returned to the M1 for my book on The Birth of Modern Britain, where I’ve reproduced a picture of one of the original (1959) concrete bridges, designed by Sir Owen Williams and Partners. It was actually quite hard to find an original 1950s bridge, as so many have already been replaced by lighter-weight and stronger modern ones. I hope the early ones have been Scheduled to give them legal protection, and yes, I do quite like them: they’re a bit fussy and the surface of the concrete is often given a woody texture (by using plywood formers). So as modern bridges go, they’ve grown into middle-age quite gracefully and they’ve weathered much better than the much harder materials used today. And then there’s wartime concrete.

The concrete used in the last war looks as though it has been mixed by someone with a spade or a hand-operated cement-mixer. In other words, it barely looks mixed at all. I’ve looked at loads of WW2 concrete, in pill-boxes, gun emplacements, forts, walls and AT (anti-tank) cubes and almost always, it’s poorly mixed. And why? Because the work was done in a frantic rush in about six to eight months in 1940/1. That rapidly-mixed concrete tells its own story. People were scared, and rightly so. OK, they kept calm, but they didn’t just carry on, like so many suet puddings. No, they rolled up their sleeves and mixed concrete. Men and women. Old and young. It was those human beings with their spades and shovels which got me started. And now, I’m afraid, I’m a fully-fledged ‘concrete anorak’.  The period and its rapidly vanishing remains have grown to fascinate me – no, that’s the wrong word, ‘haunt’ is closer to it.

So I was not surprised to come across two sets of AT cubes when I was filming for a Time Team documentary last week with SIR Tony Robinson. And while I’m at it, huge congratulations to you Tony, your knighthood is richly deserved, especially for your acting and archaeological work. But I suspect it was largely given for your role in politics. As far as I’m concerned you’d have merited one even if you’d never joined the Labour Party (which is far more than can be said for Tory Knights whose main claim to fame is that they gave huge sums to the Party which they’d earned through running hedge funds – cue strong stench of rotting flesh and putrefaction). But again, I digress.

We’d been filming along the Northumberland coast at two locations, both of which coincidentally featured AT cubes. Our film was about another topic entirely (more about it in future blogs when I get the go-ahead from Channel 4), but to come across AT cubes at two different sites, entirely at random, shows how many were constructed. One set had been bulldozed from their original position to form the outfall of a reservoir. I have to say this slightly annoyed me, but then even in the recent past such things weren’t appreciated for what they were. Then at our second location we drove past a wonderful double row of cubes, just set back from the foreshore and overlooking a huge, and very shallow tidal mudflat. These were clearly still in situ and the concrete was wonderfully rough. Those cubes simply shouted defiance and desperation. They also reminded me that today the issues that face us are far more complex than just Good versus Evil. Now it’s all, dare I say it, different shades of grey – aptly, the colour of most modern concrete.

Re-arranged AT cubes

AT (anti-tank) cubes re-arranged to form breakwater (left) and reservoir outfall (right).

Two rows AT cubes

AT cubes in situ just above the High Tide line.

AT cube close-up

Close-up of an in-situ AT cube, showing the characteristic rough mix of early WW2 concrete.

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