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Deep in the forest the 'thing' was growing. No one knew it was there...only the terrified slaves building it, and the Masters - brutal aliens who ruled the land without mercy. They had an evil plan...
Ed was running back towards us across the field. I detected a hint of alarm in his voice.
“There’s a ‘thing’ in the forest”.
Yesterday we'd settled into a campsite near the Forêt d’Éperlecques, not far from Calais. It was the boys’ first trip abroad and we'd set off that morning with great excitement to explore our surroundings.
Into the forest we went, following Ed in search of the ‘thing’ he’d just seen. Suddenly he stopped and peered through the leaves …
Before us was a massive concrete structure – a featureless block of such scale and proportion that it was frightening to look at. It must have been ten storeys high. It looked alien. It looked evil. It looked like it had landed there from outer space.
What was it? Why was it there?
The forest had tried to reclaim it, smothering it with triffid-like tendrils of vegetation, and in places the vast concrete cliff face had been smashed with considerable force creating deep craters filled with the tangled mess of rusting reinforcement rods.
On one side of the clearing a metal structure spilled out of the concrete block like the guts from a dead animal – and nearby a dark opening caught our attention, and toyed with our curiosity. We gave in and passed through walls several metres thick, entering a chilling and alien world totally entombed in cold hard concrete.
We wandered through small chambers, vast halls, and spaces that looked like control rooms – subdued into silence by a frightening feeling that whatever took place here was powerfully hostile. The walls snarled unspoken words of terror and aggression at us: “Human life means nothing – we will destroy it”; and the constant sound of dripping water added to the sense of desolation and oppression.
I felt uneasy about bringing my boys in here. The darkness, the decay, the changes in level, the exposed reinforcement rods - all meant this wasn’t the safest of places to let three lads loose in anyway.
“Come on, boys” I said. “Time to go”
There was no resistance, no protest. We made our escape from the jaws of the evil monster and were soon outside again, blinking in the daylight.
Scruffy, but free, the boys made a noisy beeline for the metal structure on the edge of the clearing. In their eyes it was a climbing frame but in actual fact it had been designed for a very different purpose.
I read a plaque nearby as the boys began climbing:-
“Blockhaus d’Eperleques … …”
The bunker had been built by the Nazis during the war using slaves commandeered from nearby villages. It housed the control centre for launching a new type of bomb, a ballistic missile, with a destructive power previously unknown to man. This was the V2 rocket, forerunner of the atom bomb. The plan was to launch thirty six V2 rockets everyday from this very site until they had achieved their purpose – the total annihilation of the whole of London and the South East of England!
I gasped at the scale and scope of such a megalomaniac plan. It seemed like the stuff of comic books, but it was real. It was here in front of us in concrete and steel. This was no climbing frame for little boys. It was the very launchpad itself – for the V2 rockets.
The younger two weren't old enough to take it all in but Ed was asking questions and I was trying to grasp the full weight of what might have been – the terror, the destruction, the millions of personal tragedies … we definitely hadn’t misheard those unspoken words snarled at us by the bunker’s concrete walls.
On the way back to the campsite the boys returned to their usual rough-and-tumble but I was unnerved by what we had seen. The Blockhaus wasn’t built in ancient times in a land far away, it was built only 50 years ago just 50 miles from Dover. Brutal conflict never seems far from us – it constantly simmers away just beneath the surface of human existence.
It drove home the fact that peace is a fragile and precious thing, which needs to be nurtured. We can't ever take it for granted.
And this ‘thing’ wasn’t the work of aliens. It was the work of human beings – fellow human beings … with evil ideas. It was frightening to realise that we all have the capacity to stoop to those depths of depravity. In that sense we all stand condemned.
We must never forget that ... it's our only hope.
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This is my entry for the “One Sight I'll Never Forget” writing competition.
The experience I've written about took place in the 1990's. I understand that the site of the Blockhaus d’Eperleques has now been tidied up and made more accessible – and is now a museum.
Great piece Steve. You really lead me into the story with an uneasy feeling in my stomach and didn't disappoint. What a sobering thought and a spot on final sentiment - very topical.
I like the way this doubles as an extra-terrestrial mystery story, as I spent the early part of it trying to guess what "The Thing" was. I wonder what Erich Von Daniken would have made of it. The truth turns out to be as chilling as any other worldly explanation would have been when you think that it was built by human beings and only 50 years before you saw it.
A great creepy story with a serious and timely point.
You make an important point- we should not forget. And yet- public memory is so short.
Many thanks for your comments Danny, David, Helen, and Nandini.
The plaque I read at the site did actually say that a determination to prevent such orgies of death and destruction was a major driving force behind European countries coming together to form what is now the European Union. After my experience at the Blockhaus d’Eperleques that thought seemed so sensible and encouraging … and is still just as important today.
And the experience also drove home the spiritual side of things – that we are all flawed as individuals; and there's no hope without first acknowledging our shortcomings.
A really atmospheric and beautifully presented piece, Steve.And - I was going to say - timely. But whenever is it not time to remember how precarious is the peace you and I have enjoyed throughout our lives; peace that no other European who has lived so long has enjoyed.May our grandchildren be as fortunate. How is (s)he?
Hi Alan. Thanks for your comment ... fellow grandad!My little Aussie grand daughter is 11 weeks old today and very cuddly-looking from the photos. She's just got her passport and they're coming over for a visit - arriving this week. So I'll finally get to see her for the first time on Friday. Can't wait!Your comment about our generation is very true. I hope collectively we all pull our heads out of the sand in time - for the sake of our grand children, as you have said.
Hey Steve, just wondered if you made Scafell Pike and Slieve Donard? My husband and I climbed all four UK highest peaks the year we got married: Donard, Scafell Pike Snowden and Nevis - realising we were going to all of those places within a few weeks of each other.
Hi Helen. We've already conquered Snowden and, more recently, Scafell Pike - see my gallery here: http://www.wanderlust.co.uk/mywanderlust/members/steve48/photos/up-scafell-pike_24348/99230 But we're taking our time over it and we're going to tackle Slieve Donard in August. Then next year we'll climb Ben Nevis - I've already been to the top, but my sons haven't yet. Then to cap it all we'll walk up Snaefell on the Isle of Man. We might even scale Carrauntoohil the year after that.Any advice for Slieve Donard?
Fantastic, Steve.On advice on Donard: choose a clear day, if you can, because the views across the Irish Sea over to the Isle of Man, the Lake District, Scotland and down to Wicklow are fantastic. The route through Donard Park, straight up from Newcastle is lovely and verdant through the glen until you come out above the treeline. The last bit up to the col and on up the shoulder of the mountain is a bit of a slog. It's not a big mountain, but challenging enough since it starts virtually at sea level.You can retrace your footsteps, but if you want to make it a circular walk, drop down to Bloody Bridge and tramp back into town along the coastal road. (You can find the route described online).I'll trot over to your gallery now. And I'll look out for your next hill-walking adventures!
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