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Preserve remnants of our finest hour

A few months ago in deepest darkest Surrey, a home owner applied for planning permission to demolish a World War II pillbox standing in his front garden. Quite rightly in my opinion, Guildford Borough Council rejected the application and as a result the owner has appealed.

Of course, this reopens the debate about what we should and should not do to preserve the UK’s historic building stock. All our wartime defences were built during a few short months in 1940 and hardly any of them are listed.

I think this is shameful because they are as much a part of this country’s heritage as Hadrian’s Wall and they represent a period of history when the UK stood alone against the might of the Third Reich.

I contend that the council should reject the appeal but of course it’s not my house and it’s not me who needs to build an extension.

A house I looked at some time ago in Farnham had a huge pillbox in the front garden, which had been converted into a substantial garden shed with power and light. I think this is the finest example of building regeneration I have ever seen.

It’s amazing what still survives in some home owners’ gardens. For example, in London’s suburbs I have found a number of Anderson air raid shelters (pictured). They were about 6ft sq, built from corrugated metal panels and had to be sunk at least a metre into the ground. From February 1940 the government issued them free to all home owners who earned less than £250 a year and eventually around 2.1 million were erected. They were named after Sir John Anderson, the then Lord Privy Seal, who was responsible for preparing air raid precautions before the outbreak of war.

During my career I have only discovered a small number of them as most were dismantled at the end of 1945 because scrap metal was a valuable commodity in those days.

But last year I spotted a remarkable wartime remnant on the front wall of a house in Brook Street, Mayfair.

In city centres during the war, owners of houses with cellars that could be accessed externally were required to keep them open at all times, a rule enforced by local air raid wardens. These cellars would typically be vaults beneath the front pavement with entry via the lower ground floor front forecourt.

At street level on the house I refer to you can still see a painted sign proclaiming the word ‘SHELTER’, with an arrow pointing down towards the cellar door – a poignant reminder of days gone by when air raid sirens would screech and Britons had to dive into the nearest cellar or Underground station to avoid Hitler’s bombs.


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