Returning to Saxa Vord, Unst, Shetlands – Ethnographic Research Between 5th-26th July 2013






Volunteer Interviews


Over the last two weeks, I have been conducting interviews with volunteers at the Air Defence Radar Museum at Neatishead. These will continue until the end of the week. Many have been involved with radar as operators, fitters or as support personnel at radar sites. They all have lots of interesting things to say but it is a difficult balancing act at times, trying to squeeze in details about former roles, contemporary values and understanding and volunteer activities.

Windmills, Wind Power and Walking

Wednesday 19th June 2013:

I was invited to go for a morning walk with the Horning Ladies Walking group and their trip to the Wind Energy Museum near Repps and Thurne. It consisted of a walking tour along the River Thurne and the Broads with a landscape archaeologist as a guide from the museum.

Trying to situate the representation of these iconic Norfolk structures in relation to the heritage of the Broads and green technologies more broadly, did not take long. “We are the history of the future”, they told us.

In addition to providing an interesting contrast to the monumentality of the radar array at Neatishead, a fellow walker took the opportunity to relay details of an encounters she had with the MoD about the radar site. It concerned an aerial photograph, an official visit to her home and the burning of a redacted image – a fascinating anecdote.




There were also plenty of bird hides, which are abundant along the Broads – another platform to “watch the skies” in Norfolk (and elsewhere of course).


Every 15 Seconds…

Tuesday 18th June 2013:

An illuminating interview with residents, discussing state power, radiation and other forms of secret space (e.g. civilian private land).

One reemerging comment relates to the interruption caused by the radar during its operation. TVs, radios, phones and in this case an audio recording made in the local area (but now no longer working), all picked up a reaction to the radar transmission as it swept through them every fifteen seconds: bleep…bleep…bleep. “You just got used to it”, I’m told. Habituation to the “noise” of air defence.


Natural Heritage: watching the skies


Spending time with nature enthusiasts and experts in the area has helped enhance my understanding of different forms of maintenance, management and value in this landscape.

At Alderfen Broad, there is a small tin with a notebook inside. On each page a recordings made of sightings of particular species. This is strangely redolent of the fighter control logbooks kept by “scopeys” in the control room a few kilometers away.




Wednesday 12th June 2013:

I was taken on a driving tour of the surrounding villages today by a member of the local community (for over 40+ years). We drove from place to place, talking about areas that were important to the participant and their family. This included discussions about the RAF site and staff. They spoke to me about the lack of interest they had in the radar station during its operational period – mostly due to a lack of contact with the staff. “They were bused in from Coltishall and we very rarely saw them or got to know them”.

Later on, we went into Irstead church. Some intricate panel work before the chancel had been defaced “by Cromwell’s men”, as “they didn’t like anything with a bit of colour”. The obscured figures provided and all too convenient and rather unsubtle metaphor for the faceless group of surveillance workers that my guide perceived.

Sense of Place


Tuesday 11th June 2013:

Fascinating conversation with long term resident about a number of issues. In part, the conversation focused on the potential relationships and disjuncture between ongoing farming practices in the area and the radar site, issues surrounding secrecy and national sovereignty, airpower, agricultural heritage and a sense of belonging.

I was surprised by the depth of feeling they had for the radar site, as I had guessed that it would provide a deep contrast to the strong sense of local identity they had previously expressed. The RAF as an incoming and somewhat “foreign” entity. Rather, they argued that it was “part of what it means to be from here”. This is just one of a range of conceptions but an unexpected and intriguing one nonetheless.