British Watchtowers, an NI classic of a different kind...

I’ve just read - or rather looked at - an utterly fascinating book written by Louise Purbrick and photographed by Donovan Wylie. It’s called ‘British Watchtowers’ and is a photographic history of the infamous and now (sadly?) demolished security towers that so dominated the South Armagh landscape for the last 25 years or so. For anyone that’s ever lived in one of these places it’ll really jog the old memory bank and will almost have you nostalgic for those hot summer days, when you could enjoy a sense of splendid isolation and detachment from the troubles on the streets and in the towns. Of course, if you had the misfortune to police a tower in the bad old days then your memories might not be quite as fond.

Anyway it’s a real hidden gem of a book and the pictures taken from the air will give you a whole new sense of perspective and ‘time passed’ from when you yourself were out there. The images feel incredibly current, fresh, vital and alive to me as I spent a couple of months in Golf One Zero in 2004 with the RGJ, and the towers and scenery used here are exactly as I remember them. I think the army began compiling an airborne photographic record for posterity in about 2006, just before they all came down in 2007, and that this book was a part of that historic project.

The thing that immediately strikes you is just how green, verdant and clear a South Armagh at peace really is – especially when contrasted with the grim, dust-ridden, sandy images that we’re now constantly bombarded with from the Middle East and later wars. It seems as though it’s a land from a bygone, almost innocent rural age, when you compare it to the scorched hellhole of Afghanistan; although we all know that at its worst its capacity for terror stood comparison with anywhere.

From the Amazon blurb:

Observation, whether by the human eye, or the technical eye of a surveillance camera, requires an architectural structure that elevates the viewer into a position of command. The system of Iron Age hill forts, built across Britain from around 500 BC, used natural promontories to survey the surrounding landscape. Two thousand years later, the British army used a similar system of watchtowers to survey the territories of Northern Ireland, and to observe the actions of the local people under their occupation. The lines of sight from the watchtowers generated a kind of virtual environment enveloping the border region of Northern Ireland. These high tech towers, constructed in the mid 1980âs, primarily in the mountainous border region of South Armagh, were landmarks in a thirty year conflict in and over Northern Ireland, euphemistically called ‘The Troubles’. The Towers were finally demolished between 2000 and 2007 as part of the British government’s ‘Demilitarization’ program for Northern Ireland. For over a year Donovan Wylie photographed these towers. Working entirely from an elevated position, enabled by military helicopter, he created a systematic survey of the towers, their positions and perspectives within the landscape.

The Amazon link:

If you’ve ever spent so much as a day in an NI tower then you’ll get a hell of a lot of pleasure out of perusing this remarkable, historic book – no matter which era of soldiering you belong to.
Steve, is Foxfield in there, above Forkhill. I believe its one of the earliest towers in South Armagh , initially put in as a sandbagged position by 1 PARA after one of their helos got shot shot at from there when they were taking over Forkhill. Think that was mid 70's. I was there in 1979 and it was a proper tower then. Thanks for the link.
You should have a look at Jonathan Olley's 'Castles of Ulster' as well.

Not sure RIRA/CIRA see South Armagh as being 'at peace'. Personally I couldn't stand the place.
Hi Para-Dox,

Mate I wish you’d have asked me that question a few hours ago because I’ve just dropped it off back at the library! What I can tell you is that it’s packed full of beautifully shot, crystal clear pictures, taken from all angles and vantage points; literally on top or beneath the tower itself, hovering over it from 100 feet like we’ve all done in the old Lynx’s, and from extremes of height and distance. All of the main towers are in there with a bit of accompanying history too, about when they were constructed and how they evolved over the years into scaffold-like monstrosities. I’d be very surprised if the one you’ve mentioned isn’t there – they’ve really done an incredibly thorough, army approved job.

I think you’ll love it mate as you’re an old hand from back in the day when it was a real tour (unlike me!) and it’ll bring back the memories; get it from the library first if you’re not sure and give it a good scan.

Best wishes,

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