Operation Pill Box: conserving Second World War archaeology in Wales

Published: 28 April 2021

Last update: 28 April 2021

Blog post
This blog post is written by Kathy Laws, Archaeologist Kathy Laws Archaeologist
Anti tank blocks guarding the Ogwen Pass

Kathy Laws is one of two archaeologists working for the National Trust in Wales. In this blog, she shares the work undertaken to record, conserve and interpret two Second World War pillboxes between Bethesda and Capel Curig in Snowdonia.

Monitoring conflict archaeology

Throughout 2019 I guided a young local volunteer, Morgan Owen, who was carrying out research and field survey of a group of Second World War anti-invasion defensive features in Snowdonia. Well, if truth be told, Morgan – a budding Second World War expert – was guiding me! The defences guard the strategically important Ogwen Pass between Bethesda and Capel Curig and the surviving structures include two pillboxes, six spigot mortar emplacements, several infantry positions and an incomplete alignment of eight anti-tank blocks. The defences are known to have been manned by the Bathesda Home Gard and formed part of Western Command Stop Line No. 23, which ran from Bangor to Portmadog.

One day when out exploring in the rain, Morgan said 'we should get these pill boxes cleared out so people can see them properly'. The entrance to one was completely blocked with stones and earth. Previous monitoring visits to this site had also identified this issue and the need for some consolidation work.

The Lyn Ogwen Pill Box, thought to be sited to guard against enemy sea planes using the lake to land
The Lyn Ogwen Pill Box
The Lyn Ogwen Pill Box, thought to be sited to guard against enemy sea planes using the lake to land

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The key features in the group, are however, designated as a Scheduled Monument, which means any disturbance, even for repairs, has to be approved by Cadw – the body responsible for the historic environment in Wales. So the first job was to produce a detailed schedule of works that showed how we would balance the conservation needs of the site with archaeological recording. This is the bit I can do!

The ranger team were also very keen to support this project. Amongst them they have an amazing range of skills suited to this type of project, and the forethought to arrange for materials to be helicopter lifted to site when doing another job. Some budget was found to commission work that we couldn’t manage in house, and Gwynedd Archaeological Trust were commissioned to carry out archaeological recording before, during and after the work.

Work begins on site

So, in October 2019, a crack team made up of rangers, the footpath team and volunteers began work on the two pill boxes. The objective of this phase of works was to clear out the structures, re-route a footpath which was causing erosion, carry out consolidation works and fit some gates to prevent stock getting into the structures.

Work began with the pillbox adjacent to Llyn Ogwen (Pill Box A). The entrance to this one had been deliberately blocked with soil and stones. The archaeologists felt that this probably happened soon after the pill box went out of use in the 1940s. This material has now been removed and a much larger than anticipated entrance with stone and concrete steps was revealed. Several bullet casings, dating to 1942, were recovered inside the pillbox.

Follow up work included moving the footpath away from the pill box entrance, repairs to the stone work at the corners and edges of the pill box, re-instatement of the stone wall and steps in the approach to the entrance and the installation of a custom made gate. The turf covering on the pillbox (a form of camouflage) is also being reinstated.

Recording Pill Box A prior to conservation work, Rob in yellow is sitting in the blocked-up entrance.

Preparing for works

Recording Pill Box A prior to conservation work, Rob in yellow is sitting in the blocked-up entrance

Making a start on unblocking the entrance

Work begins..

Making a start on unblocking the entrance

Entrance now cleared and steps and walling being reinstated

Consolidation works

Entrance now cleared and steps and walling being reinstated

As part of the archaeological recording project, we commissioned Gwynedd Archaeological Trust to create some 3D models which will help us interpret the site and work out how best to manage it in the future.

What’s happening now?

Work was largely complete when things had to be halted in 2020. We await the lifting of restrictions in 2021 to make the final tweaks, complete the archaeological record and plan guided walks (perhaps virtual ones) to showcase these intriguing reminders of 1942.

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