-Beyond the Post-Military Landscape of the United Kingdom
Project Cleansweep takes its name from a Ministry of Defence (MoD) report issued in 2011 identifying sites in the UK where tens of thousands of tonnes of mustard gas, phosgene and other lethal chemicals were, since World War 1, made, processed, stored, burned and dumped in England, Wales and Scotland. To this day such sites remain problematic even when they have been returned to civilian usage
The MoD released details of Operation Cleansweep in 2011 to provide “reassurance” that residual contamination at UK sites did not pose a risk to human health or the environment. In all 14 sites were identified in this report. Subsequent research uncovered a further 56+ sites in the UK where chemical and biological weapons were once manufactured, stored, and tested. These sites are now almost all returned to civilian use, and are now within the landscape as local bathing spots, public parks, pathways, deer sanctuaries, industrial estates and petro-chemical facilities amongst others.
They are post militarized environments and infrastructure, and a reminder still of what was a sustained military land grab in the 20th century, when over 371,000 hectares of the British landmass was reserved and appropriated for military use.
About the author
Dara McGrath is an Irish based photographer. He is a postgraduate of photography and visual arts practice for the Institute of Art, Design and Technology Dublin. For this work he was recently a recipient of a Solas Award for Photography 2015.
Avonmouth Bristol 2012 This site was part of the National Smelting Works, which at one stage during WWI was the main centre of the production of mustard gas. In 2012 workers clearing the site for the building of a large supermarket distribution facility suffered from skin irritations and nosebleeds after discovering some buried munitions. The site today has been given the all clear and building has recommenced.
Grangemouth Falkirk 2012During WWII the airfield was used in the storage of bulk mustard gas. According to former crew stationed there, secret experiments involving the spraying of mustard gas took place. Today the site is occupied by INEOS. A giant petro-chemical complex that supplies most of the petrol for Ireland and the UK
Beaufort Dyke, Irish Sea 2014Located between in narrow sea channel between Northern Ireland and Scotland. The dyke is the world’s largest marine munitions dump. It is estimated that there are approx 1 million tonnes of munitions dumped there including 14,500 tonnes of phosgene shells
RAF Yatesbury, Wiltshire 2015On the 18th of May 1954, zinc cadmium sulphate was sprayed from a low flying aircraft on the base to test the effects of a biological weapons attack on the U.K. Zinc Cadmium Sulphate was known even then to be a carcinogen. This test was one of over 750 military field trials carried out between 1946-76Re-development of the former airforce base site into luxury apartments commenced in 2007 but collapsed amid the financial crisis in 2008.
Whipton Devon 2012This building was designated during WWII as a decontamination centre. If and when the UK was attacked with chemical weapons then this facility would help with the decontamination of the population around the Exeter area. The building is now defunct but for many years was a printing facility.
Little Heath Suffolk 2013Maintenance Unit No. 94 was a Forward Filing Depot comprising three 500-ton underground mustard storage pots. Decanting and burning of munitions also took place here immediately after the war.It was part of a larger military base that was connected to the RAF Barnham nuclear bomb store In 2009 the Johnson and Rogers report was released by the Defence Science Technology Laboratory (DSTL), which discovered several munitions including several large jars of mustard gasToday the site and its buildings is being used as a wood processing facility.
Wigg Island Merseyside 2013Also know as the Randle Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) plant. It produced mustard gas from 1938 onwards. As production increased it soon became clear that a safer site was needed and the Rhydymwyn plant was constructed in 1939 to facilitate this. Production ended there in the 1960’s.In 2002 part of the site was declared a local nature reserve, however some of the site is off limits and there are numerous sarcophagi like structures that have entombed the highly polluted parts of the site, indefinitely.
Kimbolton Cambridgeshire 2012Was a dedicated road/rail siding for the transfer of chemical weapons and vesicant to Forward Filling (FFD) Depot No.2 at RAF Riseley, Codenamed Lake Site during WWII.Today it is a feeding station for cattle.
RAF Hullvington 2014On the 22nd July 1954, Zinc Cadmium Sulphate was sprayed over the base by a low flying aircraft to simulate the effects of a biological weapons attack by the Eastern Bloc countries, as they have similar dispersion properties.Today part of the site is still used for military parachute training and part of it is leased as a go-kart track.
Sandown Bay 2014In 1951 prior to the biological weapons test program, codenamed Operation Cauldron. A series of mock trials took place in the bay on the Isle of Wight. Scientists from Porton Down conducted a series of preliminary trials in order to test whether their proposed trial would work.Operation Cauldron which then took place off the Isle of Lewis in Scotland involved the releasing of biological agents, including pneumonic and bubonic plague, brucellosis and tularaemia on caged monkeys and guinea pigs on a floating pontoon.
Lords Bridge Cambridgeshire 2012Maintenance Unit No.95, built in 1944 was a Forward Filing Depot comprising two 250-ton mustard storage pots and held stocks of chemical weaponsIn Jan 1955 while workmen were cutting up metal nearby an enormous explosion came from one of the pots shattering it and vapourising 20 tonnes of mustard gas. A cloud of toxic black smoke then spread over the surrounding countryside.The particular bravery of a Corporal John Saunders in putting out the fire saw him later awarded the George MedalThe chemical weapons pots weren’t removed until the 1980’sToday the New Anglia Water Company has a pumping station on the siteIt is also part occupied by the University of Cambridge, Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory.
Nancekuke Cornwall 2013Also known a Portreath, was the main site for the production of nerve gas in the 1950’s. Although production ceased in 1959, the site was operational ready for the re-commencement of production until the 1970’s. Many of the contaminated buildings and equipment used for the production were dumped in quarries on the site. Where they remain to this day. Over the years the site has been blamed for the high rate of deaths of former employees. A rate far higher than the national average. Presently the Nancekuke Remediation Project is as assessing the site for what is actually buried there. Today the site is a military radar station, rumoured to be part of GCHQ
Westwood Wiltshire 2014.Between 1950-51 a series of experiments were conducted underground at this filled in quarry near Bath. Serratia marcescens, a known human pathogen and was sprayed in the part of the tunnel that held the British Museum Art repository during WWII, while 200 workers from the Royal Enfield factory worked in the other part.Later on the bacterium was also combined with phenol and an anthrax simulant and sprayed across south Dorset by US and UK military scientists as part of the DICE trials which ran from 1971 to 1975Today the underground site is used for the sealed storage of documents
Stornoway Isle Of Lewis 2013Located half a mile off-shore on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebridies Operation Cauldron was a series of biological weapons tests (UK Biological Weapons Program 57) involving the spraying of pneumonic plague bacilli on a series of floating pontoons in September 1952During the trials 3,492 guinea pigs and 83 monkeys were used in this manner. Humans as well as other animals ended up being exposed in these trials. On the last day of the operation, a fishing vessel, the Carella, strayed into the path of a trial using the plague. The trawler was tailed by two naval vessels for 21 days, waiting for any distress call causing concern about a possible plague outbreak around its homeport in northwest England.When none came, almost all records of the incident were burnt.The crew of the Carella were unaware of the incident until approached by a BBC documentary crew more than fifty years later.
Woodside Flintshire 2014Located on a back road near the Rhydymwyn Valley Chemical Works. It was used as a spill over storage site to store bulk chemical weapons. The storage at Woodside was in 31 partially buried 55 ton tanks and 1-250 ton tanks. The site also became experimental as it was built as a model for other bases to be built around the country. These Forward Filling Bases would receive and store chemicals and were ready to weaponize it in quick response to any chemical attack on the UK.Today the field is used for the rearing of grouse.
Gruinard Island, Scotland 2013.Located in Gruinard Bay, between Gairloch and Ullapool on northwestern coast of ScotlandIt was the site of a biological warfare test by British military scientists from Porton Down in 1942, during WWII.Eighty sheep were taken to the island and bombs filled with anthrax spores were exploded close to where selected groups were tethered. All were killed during the testing.For many years it was judged too hazardous for the public to access to the islandIn 1981 a group of activists called Operation Dark Harvest an affiliate of the Scottish National Liberation Army left a sealed package of a soil sample from the island outside the military research facility at Porton Down; tests revealed that it contained anthrax bacilli. Dark Harvest wanted to draw attention to the contamination of the island and the inaction of the authorities to deal with the situation. A few days later another sealed package of the soil was left in Blackpool, where the ruling Conservative Party was holding its annual conference.Starting in 1986 a determined effort was made to decontaminate the island, with 280 tonnes of formaldehyde solution diluted in seawater being sprayed over all 196 hectares of the island and the worst-contaminated topsoil around the dispersal site being removed. On 24 April 1990, after 48 years of quarantine and 4 years after the solution being applied it was declared safe for the public. Today the island remains uninhabited with locals still reluctant to travel there.
Norwich, Norfolk 2015During 1963/64 the Norwich Biological Trials took place. In it biological weapons stimulant Zinc Cadmium Sulphate was sprayed from a Devon type-aircraft that flew at in an arc 15 miles west of the town for 24 miles spraying 2-3 lbs of the zinc cadmium per mile to assess the effects of a biological attack by the Eastern Bloc countries on a British city.Porton Down scientists conducted clandestine sampling of the air at a large number of locations, across the city and surrounding countryside during the trial, sometimes undercover and using the guise of traffic pollution remote monitoring stations.In 2005 a national survey sited Norwich as having twice the national average of oesophageal cancers
Harpur Hill, Derbyshire, 2012Former Maintenance Unit (M.U.) No.28 is located 6 miles south east of Buxton in Derbyshire. In 1940 this was the biggest chemical weapons reception and storage (phosgene and mustard gas) depot in the United KingdomAt its busiest, it is estimated that there was up to 46,000 individual chemical weapon bombs stored on the site of approx 500 acres and on the surrounding country lanesAfter the war wholesale burning of munitions including chemical weapons was undertaken by ‘X’ Stations, the RAF’s division that decommissioned captured chemical weaponsThis proved unreliable as it rendered a lot of the surrounding landscape void of vegetation.The Harpur Hill site closed as a military facility in 1960Since then the underground storage tunnels have been used to store cheese, bonded storage of alcohol and the growing of mushroomsThere is also a toxic quarry lake where ordnance testing took place during WWII, that locals know as ‘The Blue Lagoon’ and which the local council has identified with a ph level of 11.