Some of the most enduring images of the Cold War were the glimpses of military bases protected by layers of wire fencing and observation towers that scanned the skyline. Within the perimeters of these military zones aircraft taxied menacingly along runways, awaiting take-off.

Between the 1950s and the 1990s large areas of Eastern England became occupied by the Americans – Yankee culture was literally installed. As these airbases became decommissioned in the 1990’s, it was possible to get a more intimate view of these alien landscapes. Architectural structures that seemed both awesome and sublime. Bunkers and bomb storage areas, hangars and other strange outbuildings featured among manicured lawns. These landscapes were flat and the horizon emphasised the strangeness of these sites hidden within the English countryside.

The term Cold War has an ominous sound to it. The awe that it invokes was never really played out but nevertheless the threat that prevailed made the fantasy of its potential almost more terrifying. These scenarios have a way of working their way deep into the unconscious mind. Many of these sites had nuclear capabilities and for those growing up in the time of the Cold War, there was a deep sense of foreboding concerning the future if nuclear arms were deployed. Military terminology such as ‘arms race’ and ‘four minute warning’ was not exactly a call for optimism. Yet in Britain, the Cold War seemed somehow absent or staged elsewhere – Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Russia and Germany. As an island ‘we’ had nearly always felt safe but nuclear war has no respect for national or geographic boundaries.

What these sites evoke, if nothing else, is a sheer sense of overwhelming power that post-war military technology was capable of unleashing. Among the trees in deepest rural England lay a totally unnerving presence of might. What remains of this presence is still palpable. Many of the structures that remain have become modern ruins, overgrown and camouflaged once again, only this time naturally.

The sculptural aspect of these military sites can be seen to resemble the work of the artists Robert Smithson and Robert Morris who created work in the 1970s that examined the relationship between sculpture, landscape and architecture. These sites also suggest Cold War films such as Dr Strangelove in which apocalyptic scenarios are played out.

The photographs from the forthcoming book (The Hush House: Cold War Sites in England) allow the Cold War to become located within a very rural setting often hidden behind regimented pine forests and rarely signposted. These images reveal a part of history that already seems long ago yet threatens to return with fresh military tensions.

© 2004 Frank Watson