During the Napoleonic War, England was at risk of invasion from the French and the most likely entry point was via the sea. As a defence system, a series of towers – named Martello Towers after a similarly designed tower in Martella Bay in Corsica – were commissioned and built along the south and south east coasts of England. They were constructed between 1805 and 1809, manned with troops and armed with cannons. The threat never turned into a reality and their efficacy was never properly tested. In the intervening years, however, the 100+ towers have suffered many different fates.
I first came across the towers during my shoots for Visit England and they piqued my interest not just historically and geographically but visually, too; each tower was built to identical specifications into an uncannily appropriate sandcastle-like shape. I was at first drawn to the uniformity of them – which made it easier to see how time, weather and circumstance had affected them differently over the years.
As I travelled between them and learned more about them I discovered that at the time of building, they attracted much controversy. The government spent huge sums of money in constructing them but they were never actually needed to defend the nation from French troops. Was this because French naval intelligence knew they were impenetrable defences and it wouldn’t be worth attempting to land that way? Or was it because the threat wasn’t actually all that huge in the first place?
This started to sound a lot like some of the arguments surrounding our contemporary defence strategies. At the time of my visits, the debate surrounding the billions of pounds needed to keep the Trident missile up to date and in working order was in the news. Not everyone agrees it’s the best form of protection from attack in this day and age. What kind of attack would that be in any case? We don’t live in the nuclear era anymore, we live in the cyber age. If you want to to bring down our society, you’d do it by hacking our computer systems and the technology that makes the systems work. And how do you police and defend that? There’s no tangible, visual entry point, it could strike from any direction.
Also in the news at that time were stories of migrants attempting to enter the country illegally via this stretch of coast. They aren’t here to conquer or challenge our way of life; in many cases they’re here to seek asylum, work hard and to build a new life. But that isn’t how it’s often perceived or portrayed. These coastal parts of the country are not the bustling ports, vital fishing villages or even must-see holiday destinations they once were. They’re some of the most deprived places in the country, the end of the line; places where the conflict between the threat of incomers and the needs of the settled are so starkly at odds with each other.
I began see how these innocent sandcastle-like towers had come to signify so much more than just a historical relic from a bygone era – this liminal space, these edgelands of the country, these wildly different fates – I wondered if looking at them could elucidate the issues surrounding some of the more divisive social problems the country is facing right now.