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Blast from the Past: How TRC Helped a Small UK Village Remove WWII Grenades and Mines from Playground

Doug Hanchett | December 11, 2018

For decades after World War II, children in the village of Weedon Bec in Northamptonshire, England loved playing on the scraggly hillside next to Jubilee Field because it contained myriad treasures waiting to be unearthed.

“It was well known by all of us that the material deposited there was from the Ordnance Depot, and this was the fascination of playing there,” said Tony Scroggins, who grew up nearby. “We would dig into the spoil heaps to see what we could find … [and] on one occasion, I found a grenade. We knew what grenades were and we threw it as far as we could into the (gardens), half expecting it to explode. But it didn’t.”

Those kinds of exciting – and dangerous – discoveries were known locally, but came to prominence in 2016 when contractors employed by the village to remediate asbestos contamination and cap the site dug up a live grenade. Work immediately halted on the project and the Parish Council turned to TRC for help.

“We told them that capping could provide a solution to the buried asbestos, but the area is known to have contained live munitions and there will always be residual uncertainty and risk unless you fully remediate the site” said TRC’s Adam Sokolowski, UK Head of Contaminated Land and Remediation.

A Long History

The origin of the Mound isn’t entirely clear. But the source of the materials is likely tied to the military’s strong presence in Weedon Bec, which dates back 200 years when the British Army built an ordnance depot there during the Napoleonic Wars.

At some point, the hillside alongside Bridge Street near the army base became a natural dumping spot. And it’s believed that when the military barracks were demolished in the 1950s, some of the waste materials were dumped down the hillside, forming the Mound.

Eventually the land came into Parish Council ownership in the late 1970s and was turned into a public park that included a soccer pitch and children’s play area. In the early 1990s, the town had the soil at the property tested and discovered contamination. But it was determined that no further action was necessary as long as the Mound wasn’t moved or disturbed.

But in 2014 the Parish Council was required to perform an additional investigation at the site to mitigate potential risks posed by the contamination, primarily asbestos fragments and fibers. So the council embarked on a plan to remove the asbestos and cap the site.

When the grenades were unearthed by workers, however, the work stopped. The site was cordoned off and put under round-the-clock security watch. And local officials grew worried about how they were going to pay for a more extensive cleanup and the new security commitment.

TRC Gets the Call

As Weedon Bec officials appealed to the Ministry of Defence to fund the remediation, TRC was called in to support their claim and provide technical support and remediation estimates. The MOD eventually agreed to provide funding to the Parish Council to fully clean up the site.

TRC was tasked with overseeing the work, which entailed:

  • Careful excavation of the material that formed the Mound.
  • Manual sorting and segregation to remove asbestos containing materials – predominantly fragments of corrugated roof sheeting containing chrysotile asbestos.
  • Confirmation that no unexploded ordnance (UXO) was present within the waste soil designated for off-site disposal.

The work was performed under the careful watch of a UXO specialist. This UN-trained military expert was on-site to quickly identify potential explosive items and manage the disposal if something dangerous was encountered.

A Treasure Trove of WWII Artifacts

“The most interesting objects we found were three anti-tank mines, which were about two feet in diameter and 4 to 6 inches thick,” said Sokolowski, who served as project manager on the Mound. “To the untrained eye they appeared to be large concrete discs. We had no idea what they were. When the machine excavated them we said ‘stop working!’ until our specialist could examine them.”

Fortunately, they were just training mines and contained no explosives. Crews also dug up training version of a “Bouncing Betty” – otherwise known as a German S-type anti-personnel mine.

“Our ordnance engineer said there was probably a little bit of explosive in there so if you triggered it, it would make a noise and give off a puff of smoke,” said Sokolowski. “So it was probably pretty harmless.”

Other items dug up included:

  • Gas masks
  • Ammunition boxes
  • A sword
  • Lots of bottles

An Enduring Reminder

It isn’t uncommon to find remnants of war in the UK and other parts of Europe, even seven decades after WWII ended. Earlier this year London City Airport was shut down after the discovery of a massive half-ton bomb lying in the silt at the bottom of the Thames River.

But finds like that are rare in rural areas like Weedon Bec, which is close to the geographic center of England. Sokolowski said they’re more commonly encountered in coastal regions to the south and east and strategic cities that were subject to significant air raids.

“That’s normally where you see the greatest concentration because there were a lot of heavy industry and docklands that would have been targeted,” said Sokolowski. “But also when bombers were going back toward mainland Europe, they would discharge any leftover bombs they hadn’t dropped in order to lighten their load.”

TRC is currently working on several redevelopment projects along the Thames Gateway and Medway Estuary, areas that were frequent targets of the Nazi Blitz.  One project in East London has gone undeveloped since the war and has been used only as gardens and an athletic field. Air raid and bomb strike mapping information shows that nearby properties were hit, meaning there’s a strong possibility unexploded ordnance could be found.

“To manage the potential risks to piling rigs, we advised our client to engage a UXO specialist to perform probing to the full depth of the proposed piles,” said Sokolowski. “The probing methods use a magnetometer to look for magnetic signals in the ground that might be indicative of unexploded ordnance.”

Sokolowski points out that unexploded bombs can quite literally disappear without a trace, dropping below the surface of the ground without leaving much of a mark. After a night or two of rain, you’d have no idea you were looking at anything other than virgin soil.

“Only the bombs that go off leave the big craters,” he says.

Thankfully, nothing like that took place in Weedon Bec. Instead what was left behind after TRC’s cleanup was a newly landscaped hillside and reclaimed area that could be put back into beneficial use for the local community. There are also plans to show the military artifacts in the local museum.

“It was an extremely ugly, half-mangled stockpile of soil with weeds growing all over it,” said Sokolowski. “And now it’s really reusable by the whole community.”

And while the youth of Weedon Bec might not get the same kind of thrill from playing there as their grandparents once did, their families will rest easy knowing that this legacy of military history has been safely removed.

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Doug Hanchett

Formerly an award-winning journalist, Doug Hanchett is TRC’s communications manager. He spent more than a decade working as a newspaper reporter and covered transportation for the Boston Herald before becoming Director of Media Relations for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and Boston’s “Big Dig” (the Central Artery/Tunnel Project). 

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