Pillboxes: just how much are we influenced by childhood experiences?

Audley End

Yesterday I took my family to Audley End House a stately home wonderfully restored and maintained by the charity, English Heritage. It’s big all right, with gardens modelled by famous landscaper Capability Brown and an opulent interior with a very large number of paintings, many of them portraits of the original owners going back to Thomas Audley who built the first house in the time of King Henry VIII (big guy in a hat who had a lot of wives). Judging by the difficulty in getting my six-year-old son away from it, the children’s play area was a success too. And the horses were as huge as they were indulgent!

Can you imagine dusting this?

Even though building work on the house only began in 1603, which seems like only last week to someone who grew up in Colchester (the earliest parts of my home town were built when Christ was still alive and you just take that kind of antiquity for granted when growing up), what I enjoyed most was the sense that this was not a moment in history that has been frozen, but rather that there was a constantly changing history to Audley End, the estate had a life of its own that both influenced and was influenced by the world around it… and still does.

That’s how I like my fiction, both when I’m reading and when I’m writing. I like the feeling that behind the events of my story, that wider events of history are unfurling, that they are in constant motion and we see a slightly blurred snapshot as it moves forward in time. That snapshot includes modernity, but also the washed-up remnants of earlier eras, still jostling against the contemporary developments and determined to remain relevant. That’s why one of my favourite authors is Stephen Baxter with his long perspectives of history in his Time’s Tapestry series (to take just one example) and of future-history in his Xeelee series. China Mieville too: I enjoy the richness of his Bas-Lag setting, even though I’m not especially fond of his plotting.

Audley End was like that. A huge construction when started in 1603, when the family fell out of favour the buildings fell into disrepair and was inherited by the Crown. Another noble family acquired it in 1701 but demolished two-thirds of the building to reduce it to manageable size. The interior was gutted and redone in many styles over the years, several of which have been recreated and are on show now. And at the same time Jane Austen was inventing the romantic heroine, Audley End became a scientific centre for agricultural research.

What triggered my childhood memories were the concrete tank traps and the pillboxes that are still there in the beautifully landscaped gardens of Audley End. If the word ‘pillbox’ doesn’t mean anything to you, think of German defences at the top of Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan… they’re pillboxes: squat concrete miniature forts. In 1940, 28,000 were built in England to guard against German invasion.

A typical English pillbox. Probably a little smelly inside.

By 1980, when I was a young boy growing up in Colchester, many of these concrete forts were still around and perfect for playing war (if you could hold your nose against the stench). You could even see pillboxes from the top deck of the bus to school. The slit holes were perfect for siting an imaginary gun, and fighting back the invaders. In those days we constantly relived the Second World War; there was no question but that the imaginary enemy were Germans. I’m pleased to say that my son has no real concept of that war: to him the enemy are the more abstract ideas of aliens, undead, or criminal anti-heroes. And I was fortunate that the idea of armoured checkpoints and invasion stoplines was not a contemporary reality to me, as it had been to people I met later in life.

But the Audley End pillbox reminded me of growing up in a small town bursting with remnants of a two thousand-year-old history still jostling for relevance. On my walk home from school to the bus stop, I would pass through Roman gates, see the castle built as part of the Norman occupation of England, the Dutch Quarter built by Huguenots fleeing continental persecution, St Mary-at-the-Walls where the cannon called Humpty Dumpty was brought crashing down in the great siege of 1648, and all the rest that I won’t bore you with. The point was that every day I saw a small English town in the early 1980s and simultaneously saw a place rich with history for which the 1980s were just a brief, blurred moment.

It’s only that I enter my 40s, and have a family of my own, that I realise the extent to which my childhood experiences have shaped me and are going on to shape my children. This wealth of history is only one strand of that, but I can see now that it is part of the reason why I read and write what I do today.

I’ve been thinking about this topic recently. In a roundabout fashion, my recent trip to the US Embassy reminded me of my junior school education (elementary and junior high in North America) which was peppered by bomb scares. It took me many years into adulthood before I realised that other children hadn’t learned games to play after a bomb threat evacuation. It’s not half as dramatic as it sounds, but I’ll post on that soon.

In the meantime, if you live in the UK and fancy a new hobby, one that I could imagine getting into if I had the time, and I suspect my wife would consider a sad middle-aged male obsession, then check out these pillbox websites, complete with photos and diagrams. http://www.pillbox-study-group.org.uk/homefrontpage.htm and http://www.pillboxesuk.co.uk/




About Tim C. Taylor

Tim C. Taylor writes science fiction and is the author of 21 published novels as of August 2021. His latest book is 'Hold the Line', published by Theogony Books. Find out more at humanlegion.com
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3 Responses to Pillboxes: just how much are we influenced by childhood experiences?

  1. timctaylor says:

    Wow, 1585. That’s impressive. We’ve traced some way back, but not that far. On my wife’s side she can trace ancestors who ran or were involved with most of the establishments in her home village of Elstow (ran the inn, played in the church, ran the shop etc). I’ve got ancestors on my dad’s who built several areas of the city of Hull. Some of the buildings in the city centre are a different colour to the rest. Turns out there was a blockade on English brick shipments (strike action) so my lot shipped some over from Belgium.

    In our country we tend to think of people in olden days never leaving their village, the population essentially static. But we can tell from the census information how my ancestors moved around the country, driven by nationally significant events such as the agricultural depression of the 1880s & 90s that drove them off their land.

    I too think of what it must have been like back then. The paintings at Audley End have been restored. Some of them are now lifelike, full sized, and skilfully painted. There was one in particular caught my eye. It was the countess from 1723. Not an important historical figure. The pose was natural. The dress and hairstyle fairly natural too, and the expression vivid. I wonder what was in her mind as she posed.

    • One of the advantages to living in Charleston is it’s rich history (if you can get by some of the more country-fied yokels flying Rebel flags on their front lawn). The original colony was founded in 1670, and of course, it’s a Mecca for Civil War buffs. It’s where that war started, actually, out at Fort Sumter.
      During my research, I discovered the three sons of my ancestor who settled here participated in the War of 1812, in the battle of Lake Erie, under Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. They were farmers who served in the Pennsylvania Militia, and marched overnight to the encampment on the shore of Lake Erie to stand guard, while Perry’s ships were being built for the battle. Since the entire fleet was constructed on-site, that particular engagement is also known as “The Shipwright’s War”.

  2. I envy you your history, to a degree. Here in the States, as you know, we have a little over two centuries into which we can delve. It’s been a busy 200 plus years, to be sure, but it can’t compare to yours. I’m a bit of a history nut too, and traced one of my family trees to Germany in 1585. Often I’ve sat and pondered what it would have been like to come across on their ship in 1751, look about at such a young land, and after a few years, pack a young family on a wagon and journey from a relatively civilized Philadelphia into the wild mountains of northwestern Pennsylvania. Men were men back then, and you took from life what you could, no quarter given nor expected. Even though it had to be incredibly hard, I can’t help but feel that folks back then lived just a little more than we do. Perhaps not as long, not as rich, and with not as many material things. But they lived hard and full, and in the end, tasted more of what life is meant to be.
    Have you had a look at your ancestors? Any stories of your family’s existence through the centuries?

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