by Niall Walker
"Britain’s nuclear history is one of remote islands, single entrances, ghosts disappearing across ocean winds. Yet it is also remains menacingly real"
What do you see when you look at a rose? Love, perhaps; or the prickly malevolence behind our deepest thoughts? The flower of England’s rolling hills, or just another Oriental import made our own?
Forty years of brutal civil war in England are now remembered by the warring monarch’s floral insignia; yet here it blooms again, in choleric, regal red, as the symbol of the British Labour party.
As its petals unfold further layers of symbolism, however, the rose also serves as a reminder to Gabriella Hirst of the inadequacy of classification. “Plants are oblivious to you”, she says, and this is their appeal.
Hirst remembers childhood days watching her father tending the plants in the family garden. “Gardening is a place where really beautiful experiences with the non-human world can happen”, she tells me, “but It is also where a lot of violence and really problematic relationships can take place”. She grew up in Australia, on Cammeraygal land, where new roots can cut like bayonets through the earth.
Her interest in botany has influenced much of her work as an artist, notably An English Garden, a public installation of the rosa floribunda rose in Gunners’ Park, Essex. Earlier this year, the flower bed was unceremoniously removed after pressure from local officials. James Moyies, a Conservative councillor in the area, described it to the Observer as “a left-wing rant which accuses our current government of investing in industries of hate”.
And so, the poppies watched as roses were pulled from the agonised soil. Hirst’s flowers formed part of a wider project called ‘How to Make a Bomb’, that focused on a particular class of floribunda created in 1953 by Remier Kordes: the Atom Bomb. She says it drew on a critique of the “excitement in West and East about what nuclear technologies could hold for the future”, in certain communities in the 1950s: an ideal of “atomic utopia” powerful enough to spawn a blossoming trade in tasteless memorabilia.
Ensuing years of plutonium nightmares, however, left Kordes’ flowers out of vogue. Hirst collected her sample in 2016, from the botanical centre in Ferrara, one of only a handful places in the world that still held specimens: “I brought it back in my suitcase, carrying this plant called an atom bomb through an international airport”.
An English Garden was produced with the help of collaborator Warren Harper. The installation itself was understated - just some pensive benches overlooking two raised beds, and engraved plaques notifying curious passers by. They were bred from fiery red and orange ancestors - colours to hit the customer “like an atomic bomb”, according to Kordes. Yet here, the pale winds sweep up from the sea, and the flowers flicker in the hooded eyes of the mournful onlookers.
“I didn’t want to make a memorial”, says Hirst. “I wanted to make something that couldn’t be a romanticisation of warfare. This is a project looking at the violence of botany, and using botany to understand more concrete military violence”.
Along the coast, a single road connects the Eastern mainland to an island, jutting out over a series of creeks. Foulness Island is a place of local rural conservation, where nesting avocets and terns launch out to sea from their marshy homes. The road, however, is heavily patrolled, for it leads to the island’s other residency: a munitions testing facility, owned since 2003 by private defence contractors Qinetiq.
It was here, in 1946, that the Ministry of Defence assembled Britain’s first ever nuclear warhead. Yet mention of it is whispered, and the place’s atomic significance draws a confidential remark from Gabriella. “It is rumoured that barge pier,” she tells me “near the site where An English Garden was held, was also where the ships set off for the Montebello islands”. Situated at the North-Western tip of Australia, these became the site of Britain’s first ever nuclear weapons test, Operation Hurricane, in 1952.
Out at sea, vast freighters disappear like spectres into the shimmering mists of the Channel. Gunners Park is close enough to Foulness Island that the roar of munitions testing still launches the geese into flight. Yet even here it feels distant, separated not only by the barbed wire, but by a collective will to forget.
Britain’s nuclear history is one of isolated islands, singular entrances, ghosts disappearing across ocean winds. Yet it is also remains menacingly real, even if its presence is hidden from view.
Loch Long stretches inland over 20 miles from the Firth of Clyde on Scotland’s western coast, through valleys that seem an unending entrance to the sea. Cottages stare across Atlantic waves, huddled amongst the moss and bracken of the hills like distant stars in the night sky.
This is the home of Britain’s Trident nuclear warheads: 180 missiles, cased in reinforced concrete chambers, built into the ancient hills around the village of Coulport. It was here, while spending a residency at nearby Cove Park, that Gabriella Hirst began to discover the extent of Britain’s continuing nuclear capacity. “I was born in 1990, and grew up believing that it was the end of the cold war and we didn’t have to deal with nuclear apocalypse”, she explains. “But you’re looking out at these mountains and water and seeing these sharp grey military boats and the occasional trident submarines lurking up”.
The UK government’s plan to upgrade its Trident programme will cost an estimated £31 billion. As part of it, the number of warheads situated at Coulport will increase by 40%. Britain’s arsenal, supporters of the rise say, is dwarfed by its rivals in China and Russia. Yet our current stockpile, if detonated, would rip a hole in the ozone layer large enough to leave the entire earth uninhabitable.
On the 23rd June, the roses were dug up and removed from Gunners Park. Their presence was objectionable: “a direct far left wing attack on our History, our People and our Democratically Elected Government” explained one councillor. There is a fear in losing control. It makes the soil beneath your feet feel strangely ominous. Perhaps this is why we cover it in borders, landmarks, fences and walls, as if something concrete will stem the flow of our never ending thoughts.
Hirst maintains a hope for the project’s future: “An English Garden is one interaction of a wider picture I’ve been working on for years called How to Make a Bomb” which includes workshops, gardening projects and a pamphlet encouraging others to propagate the floribunda.
Growing up in Australia, Hirst knew only too well of how inestimable nuclear fallout’s reach was. Radiation from the Montebello Islands tests was recorded as far West as Queensland, while Indigenous communities continue to be impacted by the poisoning effects of the blasts.
“What I’m interested in, is trying to scrutinise a colonial history or nuclear event is something that continues to exist, we can’t categorise, because it still continues to grow in our gardens, roam in our oceans. Nuclear materials are not tangible, we can’t categorise them in the way we do with plants or maps. The fallout maps, for example, of the detonations of Australia, the fallout lines go far out of the continent and just go on and on."
Even on the spot where Britain started its atomic journey, it is a past that feels drowned out in the rising tide. What is a rose in a nuclear apocalypse? Beneath the snows of a radioactive winter, would it still reach its crimson countenance to the sun? Its path would be that of our own: only ash and dust and silence, swept up on galactic winds, screaming like a siren in the void.