Lightning strikes twice

Canary girlsIs the so-called Skylon Business Park (formerly Rotherwas industrial estate) jinxed? Troubles seem to be shadowing its every move.

The Welsh steel fabricator of the new Connect2 cycle/pedestrian bridge, linking the site with Hampton Park Road, has gone bust, so Amey will fail to hit its August completion date (the delay may even jeopardise the final funding of the Bristol-based Sustrans’ National Cycle Network); the consultants brought in to co-ordinate the Skylon park’s £5m Heritage Lottery Fund bid missed the March submission deadline; and now a fresh section of the Rotherwas Ribbon has been unearthed at Bullinghope. Just when locals had forgotten about that heinous act of municipal vandalism back in 2007, when a 100m section of a unique Bronze Age ceremonial path linking Dinedor Hill with the Wye, was buried (‘preserved for posterity’ in council-speak) beneath the little-used £6m Rotherwas relief road. And though £8m was instantly magicked to fund the bunker-like Rotherwas Archive (little more than a secure store for discarded draft strategy documents), the council’s promised Heritage Interpretation Centre has never been built. And they say lightning never strikes twice.

Central component of the Skylon park lotto bid was to have been the rescue of the 95-year-old unlisted Empty Shell Shed (ESS), one of the only surviving structures from what was once a vast 500-acre munitions complex. During both world wars shells, land mines, depth charges and even mustard gas were produced at this Royal Ordnance Factory. It has a floor area of almost an acre, but is now in a parlous state following last winter’s extreme weather. Even making it weathertight would probably cost £1m. To deter visitors, it has now been ringed by a 3m-high Colditz-type security fence, though it can be viewed from an adjoining public footpath (OS ref: 530 385).

As the picture shows, health and safety regulations were virtually non-existent when the factory was in use in 1918, with cotton overalls and bobbed hats making the workers look like extras from ‘Downton Abbey’. Women who regularly handled picric acid (one of the components of the explosive material Lyddite) became known as ‘canary girls’ because the acid turned their hair and faces bright yellow.

The 6,000 women who worked at Rotherwas during two world conflicts have no local memorial and the Skylon park’s designers intend to set aside part of the restored ESS building’s interior as a permanent exhibition entitled ‘Women in War’. Other wartime heroines, from SOE agent Violette Szabo (executed in Ravensbruck in 1945) to Marie Colvin (the journalist who was killed in Homs, Syria in 2012), may also be commemorated.

Less appealing – but clearly with an eye to the tourism trade – is to be a gung-ho display lauding the SAS. At the moment, details are as hazy as a smoke grenade, but a replica of the Iranian Embassy in Kensington and a re-enactment of the ending of the 1980 siege (with voice-over by Andy McNab) can’t be ruled out. It should certainly put Herefordshire in the Ghouls’ Guide to Tasteless Holiday Experiences.


One thought on “Lightning strikes twice

  1. While the magnificent ESS remains cordoned off (and is regularly patrolled by Amey goons), the Grade II-listed Picric Acid Store (OS 525993) 100m to the west is un-fenced and easily accessible to Heckler hikers.

    Local rumour has it that the English Heritage inspector sent to spot list the ESS in 2010 went to the wrong building!

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