PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity

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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Enthusiasm, identity, dwelling, and things

by on

I am in an English living room, somewhere in the Midlands. Flat fields surround this house and its local hamlet, which has the feel of an industrial village, as here all–except this house–is closely affiliated to the local abattoir.

As I look around me I see modestly framed pictures on the wall, they are images of the owners' other houses. Now private landlords, the couple I'm visiting have done well out of their life. This room has sturdy antique furniture, bought for pence in the 1970s when this ware had no value and this couple were making their living in house clearance. They built the house I'm standing in and now the two of them rattle around it, never fully occupying any room, their children having left home long ago.

There's a knock at the door. A short man hesitantly enters the living room, his hosts having switched into a more emphatic register to herald his arrival. It transpires that the man has come to deliver his rent payment. "How's your wife?" the head of the household asks, "fine, fine Mr X" is the polite reply from the visitor. Mrs X then introduces me. "This is Luke, he's a researcher. He studies people who hunt for things in the built environment."

The man (we will call him Bill) lights up and abruptly reaches deep into his pocket. Walking towards me, Bill pulls out his wallet, stands close to me, fixes me with his intent gaze and extracts two laminated credit-card sized images, which he then thrusts into my hand.

I politely receive and scrutinise the pictures for a respectful period of time. They look like strange symbols, like numbers warped into mis-shapen letters. He pauses (for effect). "I hunt benchmarks," he then proudly declares, "I found these in Newoldton!"

So, it turns out that these hieroglyphs are geodesic symbols etched by mapping surveyors onto walls, posts and other uprights as part of successive waves of Ordnance Survey topographic surveys since the mid nineteenth century. These benchmarks are the older cousins of the system of around 6,000 concrete hill-top triangulation pillars–" trig points" –deployed since 1935.

During his working life Bill worked as an inspector for the “Water Board,” taking pride in his ability to trace ‘lost’ stop-cocks and valves. In retirement he acts out a less physically demanding echo of his job. He hunts these markers. He hunts them because they mark out a system, something arcane but also ubiquitous. He thrills at the opportunity to explain to householders what these strange markings mean. And there is also prestige to be won within this hobby’s community–for Bill's findings can be announced via collaborated internet forums like Bench Mark Database, Trig Pointing UK, or Geocaching.

I found myself in this house a few summers ago. I was studying how another enthusiast community makes and perpetuates a thing-love, and had gone to the house to enquire about a local bunker, for the focus of my study was small underground, now abandoned, nuclear fallout monitoring posts of which there are 1,500 arrayed as a network the length and breadth of the UK (many, like trig posts, situated on conveniently accessible hilltops).

Few non-enthusiasts know about them, but those who do invest as much of their free time as their family allow them to, to the hunting (and some cases restoration) of these dank, generic poured concrete structures. Each monitoring post is a small underground room accessed via a ladder well.

The only surface structures are the access hatch and a couple of ventilation and communications turrets. The underground concrete chamber has space for a set of bunk beds, a desk, and monitoring equipment. The only other feature in these burrows is a chemical toilet. Think of a motor home buried ten feet underground accessed via a ladder through the sunroof and you get the idea.

Hilltop trig point and ROC Post access hatch at Ashover, Derbyshire copyright 'Ted' via Trig Pointing UK
Hilltop trig point and ROC Post access hatch at Ashover, Derbyshire copyright ‘Ted’ via Trig Pointing UK

These posts were built in the 1950s and manned for weekend exercises by local volunteers, the Royal Ordnance Corps. In the event of an international incident however a team of three would have been stationed in these cramp quarters, sealed off from the outside world radioing their monitoring data to a regional command centre. Here they would have worked, rested, lived 24/7–all without their families, their possessions and the rest of their worlds.

I first became aware of these bunker-hunters via on-line urban exploration forums (particularly 28 Days Later). I had set out to investigate the logics of urbex practice by studying the hunting of one case, one sub-type: these bunkers.

What quickly became clear was that the hunting of these posts has its own peculiarities and intensities. These structures are mostly in the countryside, they are small, they are unguarded (and often unlocked) and they all look the same. They were all built to the same functional blueprint. The only thing differentiating each post is its geographical location, the traces of local adaptation (posters, layout of the furniture, extent of dereliction, subsequent use).

Down the hatch. Photo by Luke Bennett
Down the hatch. Photo by Luke Bennett

This manifests in on-line visit reports that focus down closely on micro-level differentiation between each encountered posts. Just as hardcore stamp collectors look for anomalies in the printing of seemingly identical stamps (gutter-pairs, phosphor strips)–differences which are only evident to the true initiate–so these bunker hunters point of deviation in the quarter-mastering of these stations (the Ministry of Defense or NATO provenance of the toilet paper for example) or the site specific manifestation of degradation (the degree of corrosion of the powdered bleach tubes).

In this serial bunker-hunting we find a bliss in the manufacture of meaning from a seemingly empty place, an erotics of knowledge. The collector thrives on both finding order (pattern) and exception, and on tracing posts that others cannot locate. These are the vital poles of the collector, and the goal is a totalised acquaintance with the quarry. In this case tracing all 1,500 stations, ideally visiting all of them–and then telling other bunker-hunters that you have achieved this feat and spotted some novel features and instances along the way.

And, as with Bill’s benchmark hunting, there is often an occupational linkage. Many of the most avid bunker hunters of these places have peripatetic jobs, that require them to travel the UK anyway, or they (or their family members) had worked in the Royal Observer Corps or otherwise experienced the Cold War in a way that seems to have stuck with them even though the rest of the world have moved on.

These collectors are drawn to these places because they make their lives more meaningful. They invest them with awe, reverence and attention to detail. Like my hosts’ living room, and Bill’s laminated benchmarks, these places and things are enmeshed with the enthusiasts’ identity-work.

These collectors are drawn to these places because they make their lives more meaningful. They invest them with awe, reverence and attention to detail. These places are enmeshed with the enthusiasts' identity-work.

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Full Size Image
Benchmark at All Saints church, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, © Michael Trolove and used [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Benchmark at All Saints church, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, © Michael Trolove and used [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons