Rarely content to settle, the bunker obsession led Max and Camille on a different journey in search of imposing architecture and spirit-level Estuaries. We turned a grey North Sea sailing into a hunt for mythical Maunsell Forts, gathering a motley crew of writers, artists, curators and photographers along for the ride. Brutal yet beautiful, these alien structures were built during WW2 to protect London and the British coastline. Prefabricated and anchored miles off Kent, they formed a cluster of fortresses that became the first defence against enemy fire. “I do find them threatening,” says Max, “Britain is an island. Yet France and Italy have been at war for a thousand years. We always have these clashes in the most unlikely places. The places in-between are in the end where we come into conflict.”
Our trip to the Forts comes at a heavy moment. Camille never makes it. “Tell me the UK is not as bad as I am reading from here,” he writes from the peaks in the Pyrenees, “From this mountain I canʼt tell anything!” Barely days after Brexit there's a looming sensation that the country is turning backward and inward. So it's poignant that we're headed out to experience these echoes of architecture, fortresses built to protect freedoms and borders during testing times. “Maybe we could start a kind of reverse Dunkirk evacuation?” mails Camille as the trip approaches. And as we board the trip feels like both escape and defence-mechanism: a fingers-up at countrymen who now feel like the enemy.
Borders and Bunkers
The Forts grew out of an era of division and protection. A special-interest library on board reveals strange Wartime stories. Servicemen were known to suffer Maunsell Madness, spending weeks stranded in the disorienting tides of the North Sea. “The chief enemy, apart from the Germans, was monotony," or so the book states. To resume some semblance of normality, a fortnightly exhibition of craft was encouraged, and military personnel became experts in knitting, embroidery and toy making. Set this against their strike rate — 21 enemy bombers shot down — and you reveal the haunting contrasts of everyday life in times of conflict.
But it's never as simple as 'us' and 'them'. “I think the channel has always been a psychological border and that makes the Maunsell forts different," says Max. "Theyʼre stuck in a no-mans-land between the UK and the continent. But the bunkers we went to look at were are so provisional as that border has shifted so much, that I donʼt think it's something we can understand.”
Photographs © James Devereaux-Ward