Sunday, 29 June 2014

"Sea Echo" - Pipe Line Under The Ocean (PLUTO)

In the early 1960s my parents bought a holiday bungalow at Greatstone-on-Sea in Romney Marsh, South East Kent. I still vaguely remember the family gathering around our kitchen table to think of a name and we chose "Sea Echo".  Here's a rather dated photograph, taken with a Kodak Instamatic, of my sister Julie and I standing outside "Sea Echo" in 1969 or 1970. 

"Sea Echo" in 1969/1970 (Writers Collection)
My family sold the house long ago but it's still there, little changed and still bearing the name "Sea Echo". Here's a photo I took earlier this year as I drove past.

"Sea Echo" in 2014 (Writer's Collection)
The house was unusual because it had walls that were two or three foot thick, but that's because it had a war history, but more about that later.  The house was in Leonard Road, at that time a small cul-de-sac with five similarly designed flat roofed holiday bungalows surrounded by shingle. Over the years Leonard Road grew longer, and with the development of the nuclear power station at Dungeness, a number of bungalows were built alongside the five original houses in Leonard Road, and likewise all along the coast with whimsical names like "Linger Longer" and "Crackers".

Leonard Road was parallel to the coast road which ran from Littlestone-on-Sea to the rather bleak but fascinating foreland of Dungeness. Close to the road was a miniature railway which ran from Hythe to Dungeness operating steam engines. It still runs carrying day trippers up and down the coast.

The nearest town was New Romney which was linked to Littlestone-on-Sea by a broad tree lined road called the Avenue. New Romney had once been a flourishing port - one of the famous cinque ports. The sea has long since retreated but as recently as Victorian times old maps show a shallow bay open to the sea. Probably salt marshes at low tide with Littlestone-on Sea at the northern end of the mouth and Greatstone-on-Sea on the southern side. This can be seen in the 1816 map below:

Map showing Greatstone-on-Sea in 1816 (www.greatstone.net)
The area marked "The Warren" is now a seaside golf course. The open bite no longer exists and Great Stone and Little Stone are linked. The history of Romney Marsh has been a constant struggle with the sea. In Roman times ships sailed over a large and shallow bay to the Roman port of Portus Lemanis. In Saxon times it must have been largely a  salt marsh with navigable channels, some of which (salt marshes) remains today around Rye Harbour. The Saxons created innings to reclaim land and to harvest salt for commercial use. Sea walls were built  to keep out the sea and ditches and dykes to drain the marsh.

But let's return to Leonard Road and "Sea Echo". There was a flight of wooden stairs that led to the wind-swept flat roof where water collected in pools. To the front across the small rail track and the coast road was the shingle beach. At high tide the sea came right up to the shingle bank and at low tide a vast expanse of sand and mud was exposed.  Here fishermen dug for lug worm for use as bait and we would sometimes cross the sands, sinking in patches of soft mud up to our ankles,  to go shrimping at low tide. This involved pushing a wide net along the sea bottom in three foot of shallow water. We would gather plenty of shrimps. It was hard work peeling them and then boiling them but they were sweet and tasty to eat and fresh from the sea.

Looking out to sea you could see across St Mary's Bay to the white chalk cliffs of Folkestone and Dover. Stand up on the highest sand dune at Greatstone near the Jolly Fisherman Hotel and on a clear day you can see bits of France. In the sea just off Littlestone is the wreck of a section of the Mulberry Harbour which was to be used in the invasion of Normandy,  but broke free whilst being towed  to wash up on this stretch of beach.

To the rear of "Sea Echo" there were miles of shingle and occasional gravel pits.  It's hard work walking on the shingle and in days gone by locals at Dungeness used to wear contraptions like snow shoes with a piece of board under their shoes to facilitate crossing the shingle.

Back then and even today there is a kind of enchantment  brought about by a sense of desolation, the wind ripping across the shingle, the gulls screeching, and that wide expanse of sea and sky. The constant battle with nature. On foggy nights you could hear the mournful blast of the fog horn from the lighthouse at Dungeness.  The long, low line of hills that run from the ragstone cliffs at Fairlight to the hump backed downs at Hythe mark the old Saxon shoreline.  There is so much history in this little corner of England that you are easily caught up under its spell.

The walls of Sea Echo were unusually thick and we knew that it had some connection with the PLUTO Project in World War 2 through which petroleum was supplied to the Allied invasion armies by cable-like pipes that ran under the channel, one of which emanated from Greatstone-on-Sea and another from the Isle of Wight.

I was in Chatham recently visiting the Regimental Museum of the Corp of Royal Engineers. There was a display on the PLUTO Project and there was a photograph of "Sea Echo" in World War 2 at which time it had been built as a pumping-house disguised to look like a seaside bungalow, and therefore escape the notice of German aircraft or German espionage.

Here is that photograph - clearly  it was Sea Echo - there is a name on the house that I can't read but probably the same name the house bore when we acquired it all those years ago.
"Sea Echo" to us  (Photo from display at Royal Engineers Museum at Chatham)
You can see the wooden flight of steps going up to the roof - the French windows are not dissimilar to the 1969/1970 photo but there's a soldier standing near the front door (which was on the side rather than the front) and the house along with two others beside it would have contained pumping equipment.

Here's another war time picture showing the three houses on the western side of Leonard Road with the third one being "Sea Echo" and showing Leonard Road coming to an abrupt end at the shingle edge in the foreground.

The three pump houses disguised as holiday bungalows (www. combinedops.com)
In this photograph you can see the pipeline on huge drums being towed across the channel  to supply the fuel hungry armies with that vital life blood to prosecute the war and liberate occupied Europe from tyranny.

Laying the pipe-line (Source: www.combinedops.com)
 One of the huge drums  on the beach ……….ready to roll

Known as a conundrum (Source: www.greatsone.net)
 These two houses on the eastern side of Leonard Road were used  as accommodation
 Disguised as holiday bungalows (Source: www.greatstone.net)

The pipeline project PLUTO was hugely important to the war effort and allowed over a million gallons of petroleum per day to be carried across the channel. The fuel was transported by pipe line from Walton-on-Thames in Surrey to Greatstone-on-Sea where it terminated at the five PLUTO bungalows - one of which was "Sea Echo" and from where the pipeline carried on under the Channel to the French Coast.  The huge drums that were towed across the Channel and known as "Conundrums" each carried 30 miles of cable pipe.

"Sea Echo" with its three foot walls and its unsung history gave me an enduring affection for Romney Marsh and history generally.
   

As I went down to Dymchurch Wall,
I heard the South sing o'er the land
I saw the yellow sunlight fall
On knolls where Norman churches stand.

And ringing shrilly, taut and lithe,
Within the wind a core of sound,
The wire from Romney town to Hythe
Along its airy journey wound. 


As I came up from Dymchurch Wall,
I saw above the Downs' low crest
The crimson brands of sunset fall,
Flicker and fade from out the West.

 Night sank: like flakes of silver fire
 The stars in one great shower came down;
 Shrill blew the wind; and shrill the wire
 Rang out from Hythe to Romney town.
 
                                                                                                    (John Davidson)
……………..

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