The Twilight of Stonehouse Barracks

Durnford Street, on a narrow strip of land reaching straight out to sea, is a beautiful place in Plymouth but an unsettling one. Its graceful, well-proportioned terraces, the flamboyant southern colours of the great houses nearer its end at Devil’s Point, and marble paving stones set with tiny bronze oblongs bearing the enigmatic remarks of Sherlock Holmes can only be reached if you pass directly in front of an active military base, its entrance constantly watched by an armed guard. This won’t be for much longer. These are the last years of Stonehouse Barracks: 3 Commando Brigade and its attendant units are to leave by 2023 and the buildings will be converted into luxury flats.

The guard with the automatic rifle is always accompanied by another man in high-vis jacket. Both are in fact more likely to work for private security firms than be serving soldiers, but this makes little difference to the feeling of unease around them. The houses immediately opposite are less well maintained than others along the street, their paint peels and their doors are encrusted with multiple doorbells, not all of which alert the occupants should someone need to get through the door. The view from their windows is too real a reminder of the cost of our affluent civilization; that freedom to accumulate wealth or simply enjoy the pebbled beach at the street’s end depends ultimately on its defence with lethal force.

In most places in the UK the only regular exposure to military activity is from national news broadcasts, remotely dissecting foreign wars into the good side, the bad side, and the economic. If on foot in Durnford Street, you must indeed choose which side to take – not that either is safer should the guard go berserk, be attacked by terrorists or trip over the curb. Even rationally reminding yourself that he is blocking access to dangerous materials doesn’t give much comfort, since if there was an attack you would still have to run.

The Barracks building belongs to this elegant domestic street perfectly. It is a high walled fortress with dark green drain pipes trailing ivy-like down to the ground; a castle with sash windows, one of the earliest barracks in England with a sunken‘area’ instead of a moat like the London town houses of similar period. It is protected by tall green railings, the main posts each decorated by an iron globe, on top of which is a crown, then a valiant lion wearing a smaller crown, symbols of bravery and mystical power before it became the job of public relations experts. The gatehouse and entrance is the most ornate section, with the marines’ magnificent red and white standard fluttering above the slate roofs and an elaborate heraldic relief in pale stone on the pediment. The two medallions each side of the archway depict frolicking cherubs riding dolphins, alluding to the marines’ mythically amphibious potency.

This entrance is a passageway between the haphazard lives of civilians in the city and the military zone, where everything is directed towards imposing order on war’s total chaos. The heraldry and fabulous beasts remind those travelling through that they are entering a place with ancient precedents, suggesting European civilisation’s everlasting ascendency and light-hearted benevolence. Elsewhere the buildings are strictly functional: the outsize black lamps, CCTV cameras and the metal steps across the roof for raising or lowering the standard according to protocol just do what they are meant for. Behind the curtain of one first floor window you can make out the skeleton ribcage of a medical model, but the rest are blank. The windows above the archway belong to what used to be a pleasantly well-lit schoolroom, built around the time of the government’s first legislation for universal education in 1870, displaying a laudable commitment to Progress. The same place is now a chapel you cannot see out of – the windows have been painted over, being too exposed to potential threats from the street below. Society has sadly, in this respect, gone backwards.

In the end though, it is economic pressure that is bringing the final change. Its primitive facilities – cold showers and permanently switched on heating, cost the MOD£500,000 a year. The closure is part of a plan for a more agile military to suit an era of warfare favouring fast reaction; easier if troops are kept in one place rather than at smaller bases scattered between strategic points in Britain. Nevertheless the marines have been stationed in Plymouth since 1756 and are definitely not leaving now. They are being joined instead by brigades from elsewhere to form a super garrison, possibly at Bull Point on the River Tamar.

When the guards leave the gatehouse these buildings will be abandoned to the realm of romance; its military insignia will belong wholly to history, while the CCTV cameras will be left to defend the materialistic possessions of its new residents rather than the volatile stockpiles of the past.

The barracks, until recently, have had one open secret –the Globe, a miniature Victorian theatre complete with gallery, orchestra pit and 250 plush seats, built in 1831 on a tennis court. It has long been popular with local dance and drama schools. One dance mistress remembered performances several generations back, and continued holding shows there three times a year even after all performers and spectators had to be vetted first. Unfortunately, this winter it was declared structurally unsound and it is not known whether it will be able to be used again before the marines leave and everything is handed over to the developers.

The regular use of this theatre was the only occasion when civilians in large numbers crossed into the separate community that defends them. With all the connections between the physical reality of war, to its representation in the media and justifying the need for armed forces in a democracy, it makes a strange kind of sense that ordinary people went into the barracks for entertainment. With the light-hearted pleasures of drama and dance softening the effect of permanent exposure to mortal danger for serving troops (a theatre embedded in the barracks ensures they remain under military control) and civilians facing up briefly and safely to the death-dealing military in their midst. Escorted by guards, the experience of walking to the theatre in single file, under cover of darkness, past locked hangars to watch children treading the boards to old musical hall and Disney songs under the motto of the Royal Marines ‘Per mare, per terram’ (by land, by sea) is an experience as difficult to categorize as any in peculiar Plymouth.

Rosemary Babichev 2017

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