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The six masts and towers at Criggion
The secret masts of Criggion
For 60 years the radio masts at Criggion were a part of the scenery of the Shropshire/Wales border until their demolition in 2003. We look into the role of this station, which played an essential part of Britain's communications in World War Two.
Built during World War Two, the set of three masts and three towers were used for communications between the Admiralty and Royal Navy ships all over the world.
But when the war ended their role continued as a vital signal relay station for the Navy's nuclear submarines in the Cold War - as well as for overseas telephone communications.
The station stood in the shadow of Rodney's Pillar, a monument erected in 1782 on the summit of the nearby Breidden Hill to commemorate the defeat of a French fleet in the West Indies by ships built of Powysland oaks - strange considering the the station was to prove equally important in 20th Century naval warfare.
Although it was built during World War II, the station was at its busiest in the 1960s, when about 160 people were employed on site and high fences surrounded it.
One of the three 600 foot tall towers
There were even watchtowers on the hillside and observation posts in the towers in case of attack. But who was going to attack?
Criggion became the target for anti-nuclear protesters opposed to Britain's deployment of missile-launching submarines right up to the end of the 1990s.
The Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament (CND) were convinced the secret station was a prime target for Soviet nuclear weapons. In 2003 CND Cymru's Rod Stellard told the Western Mail newspaper:
"It would have been a target for nuclear strike, although it was unclear whether the local population knew the significance of the site. If you want to prevent an enemy retaliating what is the most sensible thing to do?"
"You take out his communication systems so he is unable to contact his forces. The MOD was very secretive about the site. We did hear that it was used in civil aircraft and air ambulance work. This made it very difficult to plan an objective protest as it was seen to be doing something worthy."
The station used VLF (Very Low Frequency) signals, which allowed the Admiralty to contact a ship anywhere in the world. Aerials were strung between three towers and the peak of the Breidden hills.
Run by the GPO and later British Telecom, the workers at the station apparently had no idea of the content of the messages they were sending, and the whole 300 acre site was top secret.
So secret, in fact, that BT or the GPO has never admitted that it ran Criggion on behalf of the MoD. Even though the Cold War is long gone, BT still won't say what Criggion was used for.
But a BT sign at the entrance to the site said: Criggion Radio and Maritime Radio Services - a bit of a giveaway.
In March 2003 it was closed down, and it was announced that the three 700 foot masts, along with three free-standing towers 600 feet high, were to be brought down in August.
But in the end it took nearly three weeks to bring down all the masts and towers.
Contractors ran into problems from the start. First of all, a large crowd - estimated at several hundred people - had gathered to watch the explosions, but some strayed onto the site and had to be moved back to safety.
Then their efforts were further frustrated with technical problems. Apparently, charges only weakened one of the towers, although the three masts were eventually brought down on the first day of demolition.
The first of the towers came down in the following week, while it took another 10 days for the remaining two to be demolished.
The station's buildings were sold off or demolished, and before long there will be little trace left of this once important site.
BBC Shropshire's local historian Leslie Oppitz takes up the story:
The GPO Telecommunications Centre with its tall masts and wires was built in 1942, as a direct result of the war.
It formed a back-up to another GPO Radio Station at Rugby, Warwickshire, which was vital to the war at sea. Apparently, the Navy was concerned that the Rugby station, although a well-kept secret, could be knocked out by stray bombs intended for Coventry. The Rugby station, incidentally, can still be seen clearly from both the M1 and the M6 motorways.
The Criggion station was established after a considerable search for a suitable site on a large plain flanked by a hill.
But while Criggion was still in its testing stage, a fire put the Rugby station out of service. A frenzy of activity resulted in Criggion being ready to take over within just three days.
The station played a big part in the sinking of the German battleship Scharnhorst and the capture of the Altmark and letters of thanks were received from the Admiralty.
Being close to the Severn, flooding was a major hazard and often the river 'came calling'.
On one of the occasions during the war the station was cut off by floods, rubber dinghies dropped by the RAF were used to rescue the stranded workers.
Then a DUKW – amphibious vehicle – was used to convey staff during such weather and there were times when even this became bogged down.
On one such occasion an intrepid staff member swam to the nearest stout tree with a tow rope to pull it out!
Post war, the station continued in use, although its exact role was kept secret. However, it's rumoured that the site was so important that the Soviets had it down as a primary target for nuclear attack.
Going about our busy daily lives it’s all too easy to take the hills around us for granted. Maybe the sturdy ones have climbed to reach Rodney’s Pillar at the top of Breidden Hill.
It’s quite a climb if you tackle it from the Crew Green approach.
Of course there’s an easier way to approach by car from the rear, but still quite a walk.
Breidden Hill is one of three peaks with Moel y Golfa the highest at 1324 ft (403 metres). The others are Cefn y Castell, better known as Middletown Hill.
All are relics from volcanic times. The volcanoes never came to the surface but lifted newer rocks into a dome, the three together forming a saddleback.
Rock was first quarried on Breidden Hill in the early 19th century, but work stopped and then began again in 1911.
At one time the quarry provided stone for cobbles which were craftsman-produced and known as setts. Until 1967 Criggion was worked by men hanging on ropes.
With today’s sophisticated equipment they are quarrying 700 ft up, working from the top and removing the south-west flank of Breidden Hill.
Up to 750,000 tons of rock are quarried annually and carried away with great lorries coming and going.
Once the stone was taken by railway but it was considered uneconomical to move stone by rail and in 1959 it took to the road.
There was a time when Rodney's Pillar on Breidden Hill was topped with a 'golden' ball. Built 1781/1782, the pillar suffered badly in a gale and in 1835 the ball was destroyed by lightning.
But the locals who later retrieved it were disappointed to learn it was not gold at all. A new ball was installed made of copper.
When further repairs were necessary in 1967 the pillar was 'shrouded in scaffolding for months'.
There was no ceremony when it was eventually re-opened but the Criggion vicar recorded his gratitude at being spared his predecessor’s ordeal of climbing to the top.
Leslie Oppitz is author of numerous Lost Railway books including The Lost Railways of Shropshire, published in 2004.
last updated: 09/11/07