If you walk along the coastal footpath from Sand Point to Middle Hope, at the end you’ll see an area marked with a wired fence. It looks very mysterious and not a place you would venture inside. So what is it? It was actually once a Second World War and 20th Century air gunnery and bombing range which later became a weapons testing site. There were several military buildings, mast structures, range marker, access roads, slipways and piers.
The site was used during the Second World War for air gunnery practice by aircraft. A rectangular concrete plinth at the cliff edge has been suggested as the site of a Second World War searchlight battery, but no structures were visible on aerial photographs taken in 1946. By 1948, additional buildings and a pier were built.
Back along the coast in Weston-Super-Mare, the Admiralty had requisitioned Birnbeck Pier in 1941 and re-named it HMS Birnbeck. It was used for testing weapons including a version of the bouncing bomb.
It’s hard to imagine the noises of war time activity in such a peaceful area such as Sand Point. However the museum was lucky enough to interview local man Graham Venn, who was a schoolboy here during World War Two. He recalls:
“An interesting point there, from a schoolboy’s point of view, was if you were on Uphill Hill you could look across to Sand Point and although you can’t see Sand Point from the Hill, you could see the aircraft dive down and you would see the smoke from the cannons, as the aircraft used cannons and several seconds later, you would hear the sound of the cannons and I would say this was a very good example to a schoolboy of the speed of sound because it took, I think, 5 seconds from the appearance of the smoke to when you heard the cannons. It was a good introduction to the speed of sound in air (laughing)”.
By 1970, the site at St Thomas Head had increased in size. There were brick-built buildings, a large mast, access roads and the construction of a second pier. A curvilinear slipway was built and visible in an aerial photograph from 1979.
In 2007, the 11 acre site was still in use by the military, being taken over by QinetiQ and used as an Explosives and Shock Test Facility.
Further information and images of the site can be found in the following reports by Wessex Archaeology: