Kielder: A semi-militarized landscape?


By Chris Pearson

Maybe it’s because I’m finishing off a project on Militarized Landscapes but I now tend to quickly spot and note the militarized features of supposedly civilian landscapes (the signs for a MoD firing range on a recent trip to the Yorkshire Dales, the TA centre up the road from where I live and so on…).

Needless to say, I found myself looking for the militarized at Kielder Forest and Water Park. Of course, Kielder is not as militarized as Otterburn military range that lies just a few miles away, and which I know through the work of geographer Rachel Woodward (Military Geographies [2004]). But it does have militarized features. Not least is the forest itself. The UK government established the Forestry Commission after the First World War, a conflict which had sharply exposed the shallowness of Britain’s timber resources. The Forestry Commission then selected sites, such as Kielder, to create strategic forest reserves that could be used in wartime.

The forest does not display its militarized origins today. More visible from Kielder are the military communications facilities located on the top of one of the surrounding hills. And, as Jonty Hall informed us, Kielder Dam is now an Economic Key Point, a site subject to extra security precautions because of its strategic importance.

So I would say that Kielder is a semi-militarized landscape. It serves as a reminder that the boundary between civilian and military landscapes is often fluid and that the militarization of landscape spills out from military bases and battlefields.


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  1. Marianna Dudley says:

    It is a shame, Chris, that you did not have the opportunity that some of us, waiting for late flights from Newcastle on the final day, had to enter the military training area. Like you, I feel that I know Otterburn from Woodward’s Military Geographies (Blackwell, 2004), a central text in my doctoral thesis and the Militarized Landscapes project we both worked on. I have ‘seen’ it countless times from her perspective. The opening line to the book reads: “I stood at the fence and looked in through the wire…” Woodward’s strongly critical standpoint towards the military training in Northumberland, and her recollections of cold stares from military personnel the other side of the fence, no doubt contributed to my anticipation of what Otterburn would be like. My own experiences of entering militarized landscapes, however, forewarned me that Woodward’s experience was by no means the only response to researching military training areas, and Otterburn itself reinforced this.

    Over the course of the Militarized Landscapes project, Chris, myself, PI Peter Coates and CI Tim Cole have had many discussions over the extent of our ‘going native’ in military environments – had researching militarized landscapes in turn militarized us? We all agree that ‘Do Not Enter – Risk of Death’ and ‘Danger! Explosives’ signs do not have the same effect on us any more, having tramped through grass peppered with bullet casings and strayed a little off the path into firing areas. And, Chris, I have to admit that my reaction to driving into Otterburn confirms my own militarization, I fear.

    Firstly, we (me, Tim Cole, Peter Coates, and the unmilitarized Jill Payne) noticed that the boundary of this training area merged with the civilian landscape beyond via the working farms that dotted the perimeter, within the military area. Secondly, a welcome notice stood by the side of the road, demarcating the public roads that crisscrossed the area and allowed the public to pass through. So far, so unthreatening. We drove down to Otterburn barracks, noting ruined farmbuildings in the distance and coinciding with a movement of troops back to barracks, uniformed and with weapons resting on their arms.

    All in all, Otterburn felt to me a much more familiar landscape than Kielder. Otterburn’s military features were clear to read, its signs displayed and its purpose visible. Kielder was a much more complex landscape for me to negotiate. Its dual role as economic resource and recreation centre make separate demands of the place, that seem to be at risk of conflict (although that problem is shared by military training areas, as recreational users continue to pressure the MOD for increased access, and are kept at bay by arguments such as personal safety, and, increasingly, environmental impact). I agree that Kielder can be read as a semi-militarized landscape. The planting of the forest post-World War I certainly ties the site in to the Global Processes that the workshops have encouraged us to find in Local Places. And, just as we found military training areas to be sites of multiple, layered histories (including the stories of the dispossessed, the anti-militarists, the flora and fauna, and the soldiers training), over the course of the workshop Kielder revealed to us all that it too holds some different histories, and selective narratives, that we began to identify and piece together. It was a thought-provoking place – although it wasn’t until I left that I felt a palpable sense of relief upon being out from the dark dense forest and in the open air. The expanse of the military training area was a welcome change – but that might just be me.

  2. Chris Pearson says:

    Thanks for your posting Marianna. Hopefully I’ll make it to Otterburn one day. Like you, I often feel worryingly “at home” in militarized landscapes, I guess because I have a sense of what to expect. Even so, the thought that I’m a civilian visitor and “out-of-place” emerges.