Thursday, 22 December 2016

In search of the barrage balloon on Beech Road

I have never seen a barrage balloon, apart from those in photographs.

They were a common enough sight in urban areas during the war.  As big as a house and filled with inflammable gas they were the last line of defence against enemy bombers.  They floated high above the buildings tethered by steel cables whose purpose was to deter those hostile aircraft.

We had one on the Rec. I was first told the story by my old friend John who on one of our many walks around the recreational ground pointed to the exact spot where the steel cables were fastened to a concrete block.

Years later I went looking for it but it had gone, perhaps during the time they were repairing the Egerton sewer which runs under the Rec and Beech Road before heading off towards the meadows.

In time I even began to doubt that I had been told the story until Alan Brown showed me his picture of the balloon.

Now this is a story I have visited in the past but looking again at Alan’s picture made me reflect that so much of that wartime landscape has vanished or been so altered that what is left is unrecognisable to anyone who did not live through the conflict.

Take for instance the painted sign EWS which could be found on walls and buildings.

The letters stand for emergency water supply and indicated where water supplies could be obtained in the event that the water mains had been damaged and the fire brigade needed to put out fires causes by the bombing.

We had one opposite the family home in London.  It was a brick built water tank, made from excavating the cellars of six bombed out houses.  A thin coat to tar had been added to the cellar floors and the sides bricked up to a height of six or seven feet using the salvaged bricks from the houses.

In Piccadilly in town there were similar tanks beside the bust Station on Parker Street.

Most did survive into the post war period but I doubt that any are still left today.  It will be the same for the EWS signs a few of which can just be made out as feint ghost lettering on walls but the majority have long gone.

So have the air raid shelters and pill boxes which came in many shapes and sizes.  The communal shelters built in the streets were taken down at the end of the war.

 In the same way the Morrison shelter which resembled a cage and was designed to be erected inside the house will have gone for scarp.

But a few of the Anderson shelters linger in back gardens.  These were the dome shaped ones made of six galvanised corrugated steel panels which were bolted at the top.

They were partially buried in the ground and finished off with a coating of soil on top. And properly maintained they have done sterling work as garden sheds for over 70 years.  There is I think one in a garden on Sandy Lane.

Now this is not some sentimental journey.  These things were around because people were being killed and like rationing books, gas masks and the black out when the war came to an end a grateful nation wanted rid of all the things that remotely reminded them of that war.

Although of course rationing along with identity cards did survive into the years of peace.  As did the surplus war material from old service uniforms to decommissioned lorries which found their way into civilian life.

Looking back now nearly 70 years the historian in me worries about the loss of so much of these war time relics.  More so because they can still be matched by the testimony of living people which  of course is rare in archaeology.

How I would love to ask someone just how comfortable it was to sit in the Collosseum in Rome or whether Shakespeare really was as funny in real life as his comic characters and whether Frederick Engels did stand a round of drinks.  But you can’t and that is that.

On the other hand Alan Brown remembered the barrage balloon as did my friend John, and both could walk you to the spot where it was tethered and if necessary explain just what panic was caused when one broke free.  Moreover Alan remembers talking to the team in charge of the balloon.

All of which I suppose is a plea for the careful recording of these war time relics before they all disappear.  So looking agaon at the detail of alan's picture with the Team of men responsible for the balloon, it does not match where John told me it was.  History in the minute perhaps buut still a little frustrating.

Pictures; barrage balloon on the Rec from the collection of Alan Brown, & the EWS sign from a detail from Students Union Oxford Road, 1960, m03829 courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council, and an old and badly rusted Anderson shelter, that has in it's time been coneverted for use as a garden shed, on display in the courtyard of Bedford Museum, Bedford, Bedfordshire, England,© Simon Speed

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