For the last eighteen months I have been slowly researching, photographing and recording for a project based around the work of the Royal Observer Corps. This, mainly volunteer, organisation would have filled a vital role if the events of the Cold War had led to Britain coming under attack by nuclear weapons.
The ROC was formed in 1925 and its primary function was to search the sky for enemy aircraft. In those pre-RADAR days, getting eyes-on a threat being the only way an attack could be anticipated. These posts, built by the volunteers and often little more than garden sheds, were replaced with more substantial structures during the Second World War, where the Corps came to be a complement to the nascent RADAR system.
Post WW2 the plane spotting role continued, now in standardised posts pre-fabricated in concrete by the Orlit Company, but continuing technological advances were rendering the Corps less and less necessary.
An Orlit B aircraft observation post at Tendring.
The advent of the Cold War heralded a new role for the ROC. This was a role of recording and reporting the effects of a nuclear strike. For this purpose a series of, what would eventually be 1,563, small underground posts were built.
These underground posts, arranged into groups, would be responsible for triangulating the location of any strike and for providing data on bomb power and also the subsequent fall out and radiation levels. If the threat level became high enough the posts would be manned by three volunteers, listening in shifts for the infamous ‘attack warning red’, the signal that a strike was imminent.
Following a downsizing of the network in 1968, most of the ROC was stood down in 1991 and since that time a variety of fates have befallen the posts. Some have been demolished by the landowners, some have been stripped of equipment and locked, others have remained open or been broken into. These open posts have often been burnt or otherwise vandalised. A few posts have been privately purchased and either converted to other purposes or restored to their operating condition.
The abandoned ROC post at Great Dunmow
My study has two aspects, firstly I am visiting a number of these abandoned posts, recording the ambient sound and also the sounds made by creaking hinges or rusting air vents, passing planes or roaring roads. These sounds are then manipulated, edited, looped and processed into a sound collage. Many of these pieces have ended up sinister and atmospheric reflections of Cold War concerns and paranoia. At sites where the post has been completely demolished I have just recorded what is there to hear, the sound of birds and traffic.
Recording in a vandalised ROC post.
These pieces become a soundtrack to the journey. Having spent many years visiting prehistoric ritual sites I am interested in whether the journey can be as important as the destination. Can a ‘pilgrimage’ to a series of, essentially identical, practical, secular sites take on an almost ritual and cleansing aspect? Aside from these investigations and creations, I am also interested to find out about those who served as volunteers for the ROC. No so much what they did, the ins and outs of post life, but more ‘why?’. What inspired them to volunteer? How real did they perceive the nuclear threat to be? Was the joining the Corps born purely of a sense of duty or was there, in addition, a desire for camaraderie, a social aspect?
Ultimately I would like to combine interviews with former ROC volunteers with the music to create a kind of oral history piece. Much of the music has now been created in its first draft. The next step is to find some people to talk to, some former Royal Observer Corps volunteers.
If you would like to be involved, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org . Thank You.