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Forwarding article and Interview by Alan Fryer with additional input, photos and transcribed interview (with digression!!!) by Steven Bradley. Permission granted by Blyth Battery.
DON'T FORGET BLYTH BATTERY GOES TO WAR THIS WEEKEND - 21st & 22nd May 2016 from 10:30 till 16:00.
Standing on the dunes overlooking Blyth beach is a group of buildings which are noticeable but somehow not prominent. This is especially so as they now stand beside the iconic and colourful beach huts. The buildings probably look as though they belong to some utility company or other, especially as half of them are painted grey. And, they do often go unnoticed. But inside is a real treasure and one of the finest jewels in Blyth's crown.
The buildings weren't actually erected to be noticed though. They had their beginnings one hundred years ago (1916) as a wartime battery. The Battery served as a fortified gun emplacement and observation post. It protected, from enemy ships, the river mouth and port of Blyth, which during WW1 was a secret submarine base. It was also an inspection base for ships entering the port. Shipping would have to contact the Battery by radio for clearance to enter.
The Battery has in recent times been turned into a visitor attraction and military museum run entirely by volunteers. The volunteers have put together a wonderful website http://blythbattery.org.uk/ which gives just enough of a teaser of what the attraction has to offer. This includes the five display areas of The Shelter, which is the cafe and main information/display place, The Magazine, which is the main museum area, WW2 Battery Observation Post, reconstructed as to how it would have looked at the time and including a WW1 officers dugout recreation, a room from a 1940s house and a Searchlight Building. The website also gives the latest details on special events, such as the Blyth Battery Goes to War Weekend of re-enactments and 1940's style fundraising dances.
But I wanted to know a little bit more in-depth information than the brochures give away and went along to meet stalwart volunteers Colin Durward and Tony Hodge. I chatted to them as we had a cup of tea, in the same cafe and rest room used by those troops many years ago, but now I was surrounded by displays of memorabilia and photos, as the guys were busily preparing for the big event of the year, that is the Blyth Battery Goes To War Weekend.
I first asked Colin and Tony why the Battery was worth preserving and turning into a museum?
It was explained that Blyth had been a large and busy port, even deeper than the Tyne. It was strategically important and suitable for a submarine base. Because of this it had an observation post. This is the only surviving observation post in the world. It is unique and is protected as a listed building by law. There had been smaller batteries at Tynemouth, the Robert's Battery at Seaton Sluice and not too far along the beach at Gloucester Lodge, where there were two six inch guns hidden in the dunes. All of these have since been obliterated and so it was important to keep the Blyth Battery for posterity.
What was daily life like in the Battery during operational times of WW1 and WW2?
During WW1 the Battery had been manned by five officers and seventy-five men, at different times from the Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery and Tynemouth Volunteers. The soldiers were housed in temporary wooden huts and sometimes huge tents in the fields to the rear of the Battery. Colin showed me a post-war photo of the field filled with tents for some civilian event and he believes these were the tents connected with the Battery. The large gun was never apparently fired "in anger" at the enemy so it seemed like a huge amount of personnel to be employed at one battery. Wouldn't they be terribly bored? Colin pointed out that it took eight men alone just to man the gun. The men were kept constantly busy with the maintenance of equipment, everything having to be kept in good repair and they spent much time practising.
The large gun pointing out to sea in readiness for enemy shipping may not have been fired at the enemy but during WW2 the smaller anti-aircraft guns were. These were sited in concrete bunkers in the field to the rear of the Battery. I had assumed the bunkers were magazines for surplus ammunition with a tunnel leading to the battery. My mistake! No tunnel has ever been found as it happens. The magazine within the Battery complex, as Colin explained, was designed to take a direct hit from enemy bombing. It had a blast-proof roof made from re-enforced concrete. It was, in fact, a room within a room covered by a thick layer of sand. In the latter part of WW2 it had been the job of the Home Guard to man the Battery.
The Battery website states that in 2004 the Civic Trust Conservation plan came into being and the call went out to a dedicated group of local people to become involved. Colin and Tony elaborated. The Battery conservation is the responsibility of the local authority and about thirty years ago they commissioned a feasibility study into the best way to protect and preserve the Battery. By November 2007 funding had been secured for conservation. Around this period the county archaeologist was opening the Battery for visitors to have a look around during the Heritage Open Days during a weekend in September. A proposal had been made that the Battery could be turned into a visitor centre. Various local history groups, Tynemouth Volunteers and members of Colin's family attended the initial meetings and the team of volunteers was born. Colin's daughter, Holly, had been a volunteer tour guide at Horton Church. She wasn't particularly expert in this field, it was just something she enjoyed doing. She led the family in getting involved with the Battery. Colin had been a member of a shooting club, but knew very little of wartime history or the Battery, but once he pledged to volunteer he was soon immersed in the task.
It is remarkable that just a few years ago Colin and a good number of the other volunteers were so lacking in knowledge of the site's history as now to ask a question of the team is like having an encyclopaedia to hand. Obviously many hours have been spent in research and work behind the scenes.
When I put it to Colin that volunteering at the Battery seemed to have taken over their lives he rolled his eyes in an expression which said: "I didn't mean for it to happen, but I enjoy it really".
There are about thirty volunteers currently with the Battery. Some, like Colin, are heavily involved in maintenance work, building new displays and taking part in re-enactments. Some are entertainers, some local historians, and some just make tea for visitors in the cafe. But all are vital and welcome. Tony was asked to bring his jeep along to events and ended up becoming a dedicated part of the team, passionate about the future of the Battery. I hinted to Colin and Tony that the team seemed to be like one large, extended family and were working together with great unity. There was no disagreement to this comment.
The Blyth Battery Goes To War event in May has become an annual spectacle in Blyth's calendar. Other special event weekends are held throughout the spring and summer months too. Many re-enactment groups, estimated to be one hundred persons this year, from all over the country, descend on Blyth to show off military hardware and uniforms. The culmination is a staged battle on the beach complete with more pyrotechnics than an AC/DC concert. It is also one of the highlights of the re-enactors year and they rough it for the weekend by sleeping in a true wartime spirit on the floor of the museum.
The special events had their beginnings right from the start of the Battery becoming a visitor centre. They had planned to ask the Duke of Gloucester to do the honours and cut the ribbon, but thought they also needed some entertainment on the day. (A Duke of Gloucester paraded his troops in a large military exercise in the late 18th century to the west of what is now Gloucester Lodge Farm, near the Battery.) They booked Colin Bourdiec, a George Formby tribute act and re-enactor. He became one of the volunteers at the Battery. More re-enactors followed till they had the size of event where the services of the Duke of Gloucester were not needed. Colin Bourdiec is a regular entertainer at 1940s style dances arranged by the Battery volunteers as social and fundraising nights.
The team also spend a great deal of time during the winter months, when the museum isn't operational, attending fayres and other events, trying to raise a few bob, otherwise they do have maintenance grants from the local authority, Blyth Town Council give some financial support and, of course, donations.
I asked Colin and Tony about the five main exhibit areas listed on the website. Where did all the stuff come from?
Colin explained that a lot of the volunteers had various bits and pieces in their own private collections anyway which they have loaned or donated. The Volunteers purchased three display cases to house small items in the cafe area. The rest came as the result of house and loft clearances. Although it is not an accredited museum they do keep meticulous and proper records of donations. And, although they are primarily a military museum they do display other exhibits from time to time.
2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Battery what have you got planned?
The "Goes To War" event will be larger than ever but 2016 is also the year that the Tall Ships Regatta comes to Blyth for the first time. The Battery will be open for a full week, with a field kitchen, a room with slideshows of local history displayed on a large screen, nautical-themed stuff, Killingworth Model Boat Club and a twenty-eight piece dance band will be playing.
And what of your future plans?
Last year a major piece of conservation work was undertaken on the turret which was shot blasted then painted. They hope to carry on in this way to get the site looking "nice" again and the buildings fully usable as there are still a few areas in need of improvement. The volunteers have a relationship, and a plan, with the local authority and English Heritage as obviously consent is needed to carry out work on a listed property, but generally the team are for the moment regarded as the custodians. Colin also said he would like to develop an idea of themed weekends where different displays are shown to give returning visitors something new to look at.
Both Colin and Tony were keen to stress their passion for the place and what they are doing. Blyth beach attracts thousands of people every day and they would like a lot more of those people to drop in to the museum or cafe. They like nothing better than to show off the results of all their hard work and to have a chat with visitors.
I felt the enthusiasm come through and was made to feel welcome. I am sure you will too.
AN INTERVIEW WITH BLYTH BATTERY – Friday 13th May 2016
Abridged Transcribed Interview As follows:
Present: Colin Durward & Tony Hodge (Blyth Battery) / Alan Fryer & Steven Bradley (Blyth Town Media)
Alan: Hello, thanks for having us down to interview you both.
Colin: Thanks for coming.
Steve: How many volunteers are there in total?
Colin: About 30 volunteers.
Steve: Do they all meet at regular times, for example do you hold monthly meetings?
Colin: Meeting once a fortnight but some volunteers come down at weekends and sit in the buildings and talk to people. Everyone has their own idea of what they want to get out of the Battery by being a volunteer. Some are quite happy coming down and tidying up, or sweeping up or do a bit of painting or decorating when needed. We had one guy a retired engineer, who’d come with his family and he just wanted to get involved in building things. So we’d ask him “Can you make this” and he’d say “Aye, how many do you need, I’ll give you a ring when it’s done”. So to him this is about tinkering on and building things for people and it was the reason I got involved, that’s where I saw my role when it all started I thought “I’ll come and repair things”. Things change though and there’s other things that need to be done like attending town council meetings or working the kitchen. There are lots more to do than just general maintenance.
Steve: So it seems it’s very much more of a community thing now than just a museum?
Tony: Oh it’s definitely a community thing now. Very much so, everyone gets involved.
Alan: It seems to have taken over your lives a bit now though?
Colin: We didn’t mean for it to happen, but yes we enjoy it really. Even our social events when we have dances throughout the year, 40’s style, some people come along just for these. We might not see them for several months but then they turn up and we all have a good night.
Steve: Where do you hold these, the social nights?
Colin: Blyth Sports Club now.
Tony: The club behind the Masons Arms. It’s good. Not everyone gets dressed up but I’d say a good 50% get dressed up.
Colin: The first one we had was at the old Ridley Park Hotel. I was standing there, with everyone dressed up thinking “It must have been like this during the war. You can imagine the people. In their uniforms and you start to wonder if some of the old people from that time were there in spirit. Because you can imagine them coming off the submarine base and having a drink, having a dance and listening to that type of music. We were recreating a little bit of history”.
Tony: Exactly, in the bar downstairs.
Colin: And then we progressed from there to the Seahorse and now due to amount of people coming we’re at the Sports Club.
Tony: It’s something to see, with both men and the women getting dressed up as they would have [in the 1940’s] so it’s a real trip back in time.
Steven [To Tony]: I bet you get dressed up.
Tony: Of course I do. Would I not. Stockings and suspenders and a Basque.
Alan: I’ve retweeted many of the pictures of those nights in the past. I know you’ve had Colin Bourdiec and the Do Wop Dollies involved. Were they a separate thing or were they part of the Battery first?
Colin: No, after the work was done and we had to have an official opening we’d originally planned to get the Duke of Gloucester as a Duke in 1700’s had paraded his troops along here – that’s where the lodge got its name from – we thought what would we do if the current Duke came to open it? So we decided to have a tea for him and we’d get dressed up for the day. This led to the discussion of a re-enactment for him with military vehicles, tents and whether there’d be replica guns and stuff like that. Yes, we thought if people were going to get dressed up as soldiers we’d need the full kit. Which brought the question of whether royalty would be Ok with volunteers walking around with guns and the issue of security. Something in the end we didn’t think could work but the idea of vehicles and soldiers kind of stuck.
By now it had snowballed and the decision to go down the route of a re-enactment was pursued by a couple of volunteers who’d taken on the role of event managers and they started looking further afield for actors and groups of people involved in 40’s events who might be interested. That’s how Colin Bourdiec got involved.
Tony: Well he comes to everything now. He comes down Sundays, when he’s not singing, he pops in here [Battery Café].
Colin: He comes to everything. Again, he’s another volunteer and he’s become our entertainment manager and we just say “Colin this weekend we’re having a do, here’s a list of people we know are coming and if you can get in touch with them and let them know what you’re playing and when you want them to play”. It’s great, he just goes off and organises that bit.
Steven: [To Tony] So is that how you got involved as well?
Tony: Through knowing Colin [Durward]. That was the first thing. Just popping in to the café one weekend, because I’d had the jeep since the 70’s but with my business I hadn’t had it on the road. My grandson was interested in the jeep but his dad had seen me building the jeep in the 70’s, so when we decided to get the jeep out I’d spoke to colin and he’d suggested I bring it down.
Colin: He was like “ah it’s never been on the road” and I said “well look there’s the incentive”
Tony: 20 years it had been off the road, to the year, 1991 to 2011 when I first got the jeep here, so yes, that’s how I ended up getting involved. I had been to some of the parties before that, the social events and had always threatened to get it on the road but like Colin said “we’ve got this big event coming up, why don’t you bring it” and it’s been to every one since. It’s the only event I take it to. I did 15 miles in it last year but this is the one I show it off at. I’d pay more for it than for a Lamborghini per mile for insurance. So yes, that’s how I got involved and the grandson comes and he’s the best magazine pusher we’ve got – he runs up to the lines on the day and gives people sheets. So for me it’s a family thing. It’s great. I love the place and I really do think it’s great. It’s what I like to try and get across to people and the media that from a personal point of view, it really is a great place to come. Having seen it [The Battery] and living in Blyth, you just have no idea what you are missing, but you have to make the effort to come and see it. We need interviews like this to let people know this place exists because if they don’t come past when its open they don’t see the guns at the back and they don’t tell others that it’s here.
Steven: Yeah, I agree. I’ve been here but I’ve never been in any of the other buildings and I didn’t realise how big it was.
Tony: That’s right. So if you come down next weekend [21st / 22nd May] you’ll be able to see the whole thing at its best.
Alan: I’m coming down to get some photos, definitely.
Steven: It’s all the stuff on the beach next weekend as well isn’t it – the event?
Tony: All along the beach, right away along the dunes they’ll be tents with people in them.
Steven: How many people (volunteers) will be here next weekend?
Colin: They’ll be about 100 re-enactors or more.
Tony: Massive amount of Germans. And then you’ve got Americans and British coming in off the beach. There are jeeps, there are officers in uniforms.
Alan: Do these people, take a lot of persuading to come here or is this something they really look forward to doing because they seem to be coming from all over the country?
Colin: The one’s that come here enjoy it. We try to keep it friendly and informal. We ask them what they want to do and we take it from there. They’ll say “where do we go for food?” and we say we’ll provide it, “you’ll provide it for us?”, “yeah we’ve got a field kitchen on and we’re having a barbecue”. Some people don’t want the barbecue on the night time and those people go into town for a look around. It’s up to them, they’re welcome either way and our volunteers help them were they need it.
Alan: So where do they all stay when they are here?
Colin: Some sleep in the buildings, some sleep in their tents, some stay with friends. We say “Look this is the deal. We want a memorable event, if you want to come here and join in, take part in the display we’ll help.” The way we look at it is that if they don’t have to bring their camping gear or worry about food - can they bring more display stuff to make the event better. So we do what we can and staying in the buildings adds to the event for these volunteers. They’ll sleep in here, they’ll sleep in the magazine, they’ll sleep in the observation post, the search light buildings – as long as they have somewhere to put a sleeping bag they are more than happy because it means they can bring more gear.
Steven: Wow, its proper old school, sounds fun.
Tony: I would say it’s got to be one of the few venues in the whole country, because some of these guys spend their life doing this and basically look for a different venue each week – but this is one of the few where they can come and actually stay in a Second World War building overnight. So as an actor you’re almost entirely immersing yourself in a lifestyle; you’re driving up in a jeep or truck, you’re walking around all day in your uniform and at night time you’re sleeping in the battery. There’s nothing elsewhere in the country like that.
Alan: And if they are coming from the other side of the country they are presumably paying their own fares to get here. So it’s just a big hobby for them and its good they come here.
Colin: We help where we can for petrol but it’s a hobby, lots of people don’t get paid for their hobby but they don’t expect to. They do it because they love it.
Alan: That’s brilliant.
Colin: These guys have got a lot of gear so we’ll help them where we can with food and stuff.
Alan: So coming on to fundraising I suppose, I see there’s a national lottery heritage sign and then there’s the social events like the dancers etc. and the café but that’ll not go the full way to paying for everything the volunteers do here. Is there any other support?
Colin: We get money for the upkeep of the buildings, we raise money from the café, the guided tours and we get some donations but for events like this one [Blyth Battery goes to war weekend] Blyth Town Council and Northumberland County Council help in some way. We do need help with donations and fundraising though.
Steven: Does Blyth Town Council put money in for this event?
Colin: Yeah they have every year. We try to get as many local people involved. Try and have it for the community. It’s here for the people of Blyth.
Tony: When you think about it, how many other towns have got something like this? Very, very few. Unless you are talking about cities that might have a castle but if you are talking about little towns that are about, very few have got a proper attraction that can bring people in to the town.
Alan: Heritage brings people in to the town. It needs to be pushed.
Tony: We need more signs though, one of the brown heritage signs, even something that says, here’s the battery, turn right. That would be good.
Colin: I think there are new signs getting put up soon. They've sorted that.
Alan: You’ve created a museum here. There’s quite a collection. So where did the items, all the military memorabilia come from?
Colin: When we opened there was nothing here. Nothing in the magazine and the designers said when you go into the magazine “you’ll see the picture of them hauling the gun barrel up and people will be impressed”. Yeah we agree, when you first see it, it is impressive but when you come back next year you’ll ask why’s the room is still empty. So we bought three cases of memorabilia and I brought a case of my stuff and another volunteer brought a case of theirs. We brought our own gear and from there a lot of people have donated equipment that we then put on display.
Alan: Things that people have had lying about in their loft and so on?
Colin: Yeah, yeah
Tony: It’s amazing what turns up.
Colin: Well yesterday I got a phone call from our IT manager “Colin, I’m clearing out my uncles garage, there’s a folding bed. We think it’s an army one. Do you want it?” Yep, so we got it and it turns out there are three garages full of stuff, brilliant. You never know what’s going to turn up at any time.
Steven: You’ve got quite an archive of stuff here that people have donated. Lyndsay [Durward] was showing me before how you take a note of everything donated or on loan.
Colin: We keep a lot of paperwork and we have a lot of items in stores. We keep changing what’s on display around to keep things fresh. So even though we’re not an accredited museum we keep a record of what we have and who each item belongs to. What is on loan and what is permanently with us. We need to keep this up to date in case anything happens to us [the group] and should we have to disperse we need to make sure everything is returned to those that have donated. It all has to be done right.
Alan: 2016 is a special year; apart from this week what else have you got planned?
Colin: Yes it’s the 100 year centenary of World War One so we have quite a lot on. Other than next weekend, there’s the Tall Ships event. We’re going to be open for the week. We will have the field kitchen opened up for use. We’ll have the room with the projector set up to show old slides of Blyth. We’re hoping to have a handbook ready for the Tall Ships and lots of nautical themed displays. The Killingworth model boat club are bringing their model boat display.
There’s a dance in November, a big band. A big 28 piece band.
Tony: Will Colin [Bourdiec] be singing?
Colin: Aye, he’ll be doing a slot with them. It’s one of those things. It wouldn’t be the same without inviting him. Not sure where a ukulele player fits in with a 28 piece brass band but we’ll try.
Steven [To Tony – ex Piranha brother’s drummer]: Room for a drum kit?
Tony: I’ll give it a go.
Alan: When you say this is a museum is it just about the battery or does it include Blyth and local history other than from the wars?
Colin: We try to get local history, but we do try to keep it based on the military side of things. It’s like everything, the Wood horn mining museum doesn’t just have mining displays they run other things like displays of Dinosaurs to bring people in and so we do include Blyth related history when we can. There are things we’d like to do in the longer term as well; Because there are people like Gordon Smith [local historian] and my brother who have access to thousands of photos of Blyth we’d like to do a wall that has different displays on each month. One week all the photos of all the old Pubs in Blyth, then the next week old school photos of Blyth, then photos from the shipping yards – have different themes to bring people in. It’s something we’re looking into but because it’s a military site the focus will always be on the battery. One of our best rooms is the 40’s room because it brings back a lot of memories for a lot of people, not just those from that era but family members who had relatives in the war.
Tony: There are so many different things in there. I did a piece to help advertise the Battery on “Made in Tyne & Wear” [TV Channel] and got a crash course on 3 or 4 items that are in there from that era. The room is full of vintage items and I was amazed to find a gas iron. It was a mod-con from the time; can you imagine someone using a gas iron? I knew there were the ones you could heat by the fire and that naturally there wouldn’t be that many that would be electrical in the 1940’s but gas iron – it was the height of luxury at the time. So to me it’s amazing that every room has something you probably haven’t seen before. For example one of the rooms has been filled by Rod [volunteer] with 8 or 9 different variants of the British uniform from 1939 to 1945. Each one labelled and marked complete with dates they were in use. Everyone knows the standard outfit but not many places have complete sets thanks to our volunteers. That’s what the battery is about, dedication of the volunteers.
Colin: When Rod came on board we basically asked him to look at what was in some boxes we’d been given. Take a look at the display. It’s something to see.
Alan: I’ve been down a few times and seen a lot of what you’ve done but I haven’t seen the World War One trench yet. I’m coming next weekend to have a good look at that. Looking forward to seeing that; it looks like you’ve put a lot of work in to it.
Colin: People would come down at the weekend and stick their head in and go “Colin, what’s that you're building – is that like a trench?” I was always sawing something or trying to make something new for a display and we had an idea that was just a sketch for a trench. We had a volunteer that used to come down here – Jock, he died unfortunately a few years ago and I’d said to him “We need something like a trench, everyone’s mentioning trenches”. He was all for it. We had a room that had low headroom and we discussed how we could make a trench next to an officer’s dugout and have no-man’s land above it. So when he died we decided to create the scene as we’d talked using some photos of the trenches we’d found on the internet. I think with some artistic work we’ve managed to give the trench a perception of depth. I think it looks good.
So do we Colin and we hope everyone joins Blyth Battery at War this weekend. Thanks to Colin Durward and Tony Hodge for their time discussing Blyth’s unique war time museum and to Lindsay Durward for the Tea & Cake and tour (not forgetting Ed!!).
Kudos to the volunteers of Blyth Battery that make it all worthwhile.
Steve & Alan.
If you wish to join the battery please go here - Blyth Battery Website
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