The Mustard Gas in Sherwood Forest

Tracing the past in Britain’s post-military landscapes.


At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralyzing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.
— W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

The idea that violence leaves an invisible trace on the land has captivated artists and writers for centuries. Long before Sebald’s melancholy ramble through Suffolk, the British anti-pastoral poets sought to expose the inequities hidden beneath the landscape’s bucolic gloss by highlighting the hardships that sustained it. Irish photographer Dara McGrath’s Project Cleansweep continues that tradition. His series is named after a four-year government investigation that assessed the risk of residual contamination at sites in the United Kingdom used for the manufacture, storage, and disposal of chemical weapons between World War I and the Cold War. Officials focused on fourteen decommissioned sites (now mostly privately owned) that were closed without careful documentation of how thoroughly they had been cleared of chemical agents. Project Cleansweep concluded in 2011 with a report stating that the sites were “suitable for their current use.”

The pastoral myths of the British landscape — of rural idylls, simple nature, a golden past — are disrupted by material realities embedded in the land itself.

In this work, McGrath looks beyond risk assessment to the ways that landscapes are psychologically charged by their history. Examining the sites of the official investigation and many more, he follows traces that lead, predictably, to military bases and government facilities and, more surprisingly, to grocery stores and royal vacation lands. His images take us into the back alleys and housing estates of suburban Devon and Cheshire, through the woodlands of Yorkshire and out across the open country of the Wiltshire downs, all the way from the coastlines of Dorset and Wales to the cliffs of the Isle of Lewis and the Irish Sea. McGrath thus embarks on a kind of beating of the bounds, marking the influence of military activities upon British landscapes and provoking deeper consideration of the lasting cultural and ecological impacts.

He locates unexpected vistas that challenge conventional understandings of place. The pastoral scenes — a divided expanse of a Cornish heathland, for example, or a Norfolk sky weighted with cloud — are emptied of people yet uncomfortably marked by traces of human actions. The mustard gas storehouse that became an oil refinery and the decontamination facility turned into a printshop remind us that war is a domestic industry, one which employs thousands of local people in production processes that are surely akin to activities in other industries.

As we recognize the inheritances of the past, the places pictured here become interstitial; they seem to exist between past and present, public and private, civilian and military. Here, too, the pastoral myths of the British landscape — of rural idylls, simple nature, a golden past — are disrupted by material realities embedded in the land itself. As we spend time with these photographs, our perspectives shift, and yet a different kind of beauty persists.

Deborah Lilley and Dara McGrath, “The Mustard Gas in Sherwood Forest,” Places Journal, June 2016. Accessed 20 Mar 2023.

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