All quiet on the National Trust estate: the impact of past conflicts

Published: 13 April 2021

Last update: 13 April 2021

Blog post
This blog post is written by Ian Barnes, Senior National Archaeologist Ian Barnes Senior National Archaeologist
Aerial view of the top of the hill through low cloud

Ian Barnes is the National Trust’s Senior National Archaeologist. He previously worked for the Ministry of Defence in numerous different roles including as the Archaeologist for Salisbury Plain and as the Head of Historic Environment. In this article, he reflects on the evidence of conflict in the landscape, both ancient and modern.

Landscapes and military archaeology

In November 2019, I gave a talk at a symposium on Post Conflict Landscapes, a partnership between the National Trust and the University of Oxford. My subject was ‘The long-term impact of conflict on the UK landscape’. But why should the Trust be interested, then or now, in such a thing I hear you say – it’s a far cry from Georgian mansions and upland walks. But is it really? The four countries of the UK have been shaped by thousands of years of conflict and the physical traces are all around us. In any Georgian mansion you only have to look at the military figures in the paintings hanging inside to see the connection; and on your next upland walk look out for traces of Iron Age hillforts, Roman marching camps or Second World War aircraft crash sites.

The exterior of Chirk Castle, Wrexham, Wales
The exterior of Chirk Castle, Wrexham, Wales
The exterior of Chirk Castle, Wrexham, Wales

The Trust looks after thousands of years of military remains. Iron Age hillforts such as Hambledon Hill and Hod Hill in Dorset, Roman fortifications such as Hadrian’s Wall, medieval castles such as Sizergh in Cumbria, right through to Second World War pillboxes found across Trust land and the Cold War Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Orford Ness.

All these archaeological sites hold a special place in people’s imagination – for some perhaps a morbid, or should that be existential, fascination. These are places where ordinary people were asked to do extraordinary, and possibly terrifying, things. Bathed today in summer sunlight, echoing with birdsong, an ice cream in hand, you can still imagine just for a moment that people like you and me once stood here and waited to do their duty. Just for a moment I’m inside my father’s mind as he climbed aboard a glider bound for Arnhem. No ice creams for them, and no guarantees of survival. It’s a scary thought and most of us can thank our lucky stars it wasn’t us. My father was very lucky: the glider didn’t take off.

Pagodas, which were testing labs for the atomic bomb, at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk
Pagodas at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk.
Pagodas, which were testing labs for the atomic bomb, at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, Suffolk

Remembering the fallen

In many ways the National Trust itself is a memorial to conflict. Of our roughly 250,000 hectares of land just over 50,000 were donated directly as war memorials or gifted as National Land Memorial properties. Gems such as Hardwick Hall, Brownsea Island, Sandham Memorial Chapel, Scafell Pike and Great Gable were bequeathed post-conflict and serve as memorials to sacrifices made during the 20th century – England’s highest mountain is in fact England’s highest war memorial. Like the National Parks, the Trust provided a home for heroes, a place to reflect and remember, their duty done.

Our Wasdale rangers starting work on the rebuilding of the summit cairn on Scafell Pike, Cumbria
Our Wasdale rangers starting work on the rebuilding of the summit cairn on Scafell Pike
Our Wasdale rangers starting work on the rebuilding of the summit cairn on Scafell Pike, Cumbria

After the First World War, 12 Lake District summits were given to the Trust by the Fell and Rock Climbing Club in memory of the fallen. The dedication ceremony was on the top of Great Gable. It was led by Geoffrey Winthrop Young, leading mountaineer of his generation who said,

'Upon this mountain summit we are met today to dedicate this space of hills to freedom. Upon this rock are set the names of men – our brothers, and our comrades upon these cliffs – who held, with us, that there is no freedom of the soil where the spirit of man is in bondage, and who surrendered their part in the fellowship of hill and wind, and sunshine, that the freedom of this land, the freedom of our spirit, should endure.'

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