By Jonathan Aird
Taking up the challenge from Rob Morgan to share interesting holiday snaps with a military history slant – I had a very pleasant week on a narrow boat this year, travelling on the Kennet & Avon Canal. It’s a popular pastime these days, with holiday boats making the canals of Britain far more populated than they ever were during the years of their “proper” usage as the arteries of the Industrial Revolution’s transport system. There’s always plenty to do – the boat to keep trim, the water tank to be replenished, meals to be cooked, pubs to be visited and, of course, the many, many locks to be negotiated and swing bridges to be swung back and forth. An additional object of interest on the Kennet and Avon canal is looking out for the remains of 20th century fortifications – in 1940 the canal formed part of the invasion “stop lines” that crossed Southern England below London, and were designed to tackle an expected German invasion. All the barbed wire and slit trenches have long since vanished; there are a number of tank traps and bridge road blocks that remain but the pill boxes form the largest and most commonly visible features.
The canal had been well engineered to efficiently follow the contours of rising land – so when the railways came along they found it expedient to follow the canal as closely as possible. This meant that defences were also placed to protect an important part of the nation’s transport infrastructure. It’s not unusual to find pillboxes on the canal line – often at or covering the approach to road bridges over the canal – and then spot nearby supporting ones that cover both the canal and the railway. Many of these are still in a good state of repair – if often partly overgrown – in part I would hazard to guess due to the turn of the century survey of surviving concrete fortifications undertaken as part of the “Defence of Britain” project run by Council for British Archaeology. Whatever the reason, spotting pill boxes or the larger gun emplacements in all their style variants soon became another enjoyable feature of a trip along the canals.