As soon as I saw this almost ruin I just knew it had to be saved, not only for future generations, but also as part of the history of our small village Elstow near Bedford. Elstow was the birth place of John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrims Progress.
Whilst taking part in an exercise to list all byways and natural walkways for Elstow Parish Council, to prevent all those not listed being be lost forever in 2020, a colleague asked if I had seen the local pillbox.
He showed me an unloved small building; the problem is that it is now in a large Retail Park, yards from a Costa coffee place, yards from a M&S Foodhall, B&Q and all the other national chains, Next, Boots, McDonalds etc so the Pillbox was in real danger of being demolished.
Thankfully the small piece of land it was on, near a roundabout, was owned by Bedford Borough Council so I called their heritage department. They had no money at all but had no objections if I raised the money.
Just the answer I needed.
The photos below show how poor the condition was although even after I had cleared a lot of weeds and ivy.
Raising money was the main problem, English Heritage were not interested, surprisingly, but eventually I was able to interest enough sponsors to engage a builder. Again difficult to get a builder who had the interest and skill to complete what was an unusual job.
After the initial cleaning it was realised that the top three courses of bricks were in too bad a condition so they we replaced. It was planned to use a special chemical to seal the roof against the worse of winter’s weather hence the wooden frame.
The reinforcing rods in places such as the openings were also in a very bad condition, crumble at a touch so that would need to be considered.
The well-known author Dr Michael Osborne who has written books such as “Defending Britain” and “20th Century Defences in Britain” was kind enough to offer advice and help with his wealth of experience.
There are times when little things just pop up and become big things. Our builder Pelham Chambers suggested I speak to local well known roofing contractor Malcolm Henrickson as he was known to help with charity donations.
When I explained what we were doing he offered to heat seal the whole roof with special material that would last 50 or more years ensuring no further problems with winter’s ravages.
It was interesting to see that this pillbox was built using Quetta Bond reinforcing, this is a method where in the course of bricks regular gaps are left into which steel reinforcing roads are placed and the gap filled with concrete.
Pelham had gotten to this stage, mesh reinforcement at openings and the door to replace the crumbling metal rods, when winter hit…the Beast came calling to Elstow so that was it for a few months but at least work was progressing, a few passers-by stopped to chat about the pillbox, the usual opening was ‘My dad was in the war…..’ one ex serviceman even brought Pelham coffee and cake, in all about 70 people have stopped to chat to Pelham the builder thanking us for saving this unique building.
When the weather was better we had to decide the best way forward.
Do we leave the 1942 bricks uncovered, open to the elements, crumbling each year or do we take a radical step to cover the bricks on the outside but of course keep them uncovered on the inside.
Do we give a nod to history and try to be natural and purist but accept that the Elstow Pillbox would probably not last many more years or do we do something a little more unusual?
I decided to screed the outside with cement.
Once the tough decision was made to cover all the bricks with a cement render it removed any doubts that we had made the right decision, although in 1942 most pillboxes were hidden or made to look like something else we could not do that, I ask the purist to look at this in modern times and accept that these 76 year old bricks would be doomed if just left, regardless of how “real and natural” that might be.
The photos here show what is almost the end of this long trail, the frustration of raising money, the indifference of English Heritage and national bodies, the skill and enthusiasm of Pelham Graham, the vision of our sponsors, the support of so many people.
One last job.
We need to cover this rendering and that will be with masonry paint, a dark gray making it less of a target for those mindless graffiti “artists”, we can paint over any graffiti.
Two coats of what I thought would be a dark green but turned out a dark gray. Oh well, it’ll do The only other thing needed now is the lectern type signpost that I have ordered, 6 weeks I have been told then that can be cemented into the soil for people to read what this small building was used for.
Then the official opening, local newspapers, Home Guard re-enactors, the Mayor then a glass of something……
Jon Miles 2018