To look at Dara McGrath’s sweeping photos of rocky beaches, rolling moors, and idyllic islands, you wouldn’t know that each is the former site of a chemical or biological weapons facility. “Theres a dichotomy going on here, between the beautiful landscape and the secret history thats hidden underneath, hesays.
The Irish photographerexploresthis unsettling past inProject Cleansweep. His seriesdocuments the often picturesque spots once home to chemical factories, ordnance test quarries, underground munitions bunkers, anddecontamination centers where authorities produced, tested, and disposed of lethal agentslike anthrax and mustard gas.
Great Britain began testing chemical weapons on home soil duringWorld War I, a practice thatcontinued through World War II. Many facilities and sites satless than 10 miles from rural towns. In 2007, the British Ministry of Defence startedinvestigating 14 potentially hazardous sitesunder a campaign called Project Cleansweep. The government released its findings in2011, when it found “no indication of significant risk to public health or environment” even though authorities conceded they “do not have scientific evidence that all harmful traces of the agents were removed or disposed of.”
McGrath read about Project Cleansweep in 2011, and found himself shocked and intrigued by it all. Over the next five years, helocated and photographed some70 sites associated with chemical weaponstesting in England, Wales, and Scotland. He visited each of the sites listed in the Project Cleansweep report, and identified others through government documents and interviews with military historians, environmental activists, and locals.
None of the locations hinted at their ominous past. Some were downright boring,like anabandoned bus on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, once doused withpneumonic and bubonic plague or the snowy field in Kimbolton, Cambridgeshire, England, where the military stored mustard gas. Put topsoil on, cover it in concrete and trees, and now everything is forgotten about, McGrath says. But he found other sites stunning in their beauty. He took a boat to Gruniard Island, Scotland, which hosted a top-secretanthrax test siteduring World War II, and was taken aback by its loveliness. You have 80 years of growth on an island thats untouched by man — it was alive with dragonflies and all types of insects, totally left alone there, he says.
This contract between the beauty of nature and the ugliness of war is what makes Project Cleansweepso compelling. Hidden among the wildflowers and rolling fields lies a secret history you’d like to forget.