During a fleeting conversation as he was leaving Maldon’s OakHouse, a friend of mine asked if I knew anything about (in his words) the “circle of light”.

At first I didn’t know what he was talking about, but following a bit more questioning, the penny dropped.

He was, in fact, referring to those enigmatic wartime remains on Kit’s Hill, at the end of Fambridge Road, Cold Norton.

The installation was once part of a network of home defences – in this case a type of 'secret' floodlight (although I am not sure how you would keep something as bright as a floodlight secret).

From around 1936, as the war clouds were forming over Europe, experiments took place in ground defences.

These included the technology that would go on to become the game-changing success of radar.

Some bright spark then came up with the idea of illuminating the night skies, the pretext being that no self-respecting invading bomber pilot would want to fly into such revealing light.

It was, so the authorities thought, a simple, but brilliant idea.

A thick belt of fixed lights was installed – all 50 of them located in the particularly vulnerable county of Essex.

They stretched from Little Leighs, Chelmsford, down to Eastwick, on the outskirts of Southend.

There is evidence that in 1939, just before the outbreak of war, number 311 Searchlight Battery were camped out in Watch-House Field, Danbury.

The adjacent Maldon district was under the route of hostile air attacks on London, the estuaries of the Blackwater and Crouch acting as natural guides.

Floodlights were, therefore, located at Woodham Walter (in the woods, north of the track from Church Hill to the Warren), Woodham Mortimer (south of the A414), Stow Maries (south of Morris Farm) and two in the parish of Cold Norton – one at Charity Farm and the other on Kit’s Hill.

Maldon and Burnham Standard: Now partly overgrown, the site is located under the brow of the hillNow partly overgrown, the site is located under the brow of the hill (Image: Stephen Nunn)

It is probable that, like Danbury, they were all in place by the time the war started in September 1939.

They were quite different to the “moving finger” beams of normal searchlights. Rather than pinpointing and following aircraft, they flooded a massive zone of the sky, joining up with the light from the neighbouring floodlights.

Rev BW Shepheard-Walwyn, recalling his time as Senior Warden in his Purleigh in Wartime (Clarke 1946) may well have seen them in action.

He described “searchlights, more than I had seen before, but lolling aimlessly and motionless”.

“No doubt," he concluded, "there was method in the searchlights' strange behaviour which it was not for mere Wardens to know.”

It was quickly realised that there was a major flaw in the idea of flooding the skies.

Instead of deterring bombers, the lights pierced the night skies, hit the clouds and bounced back on the ground, illuminating targets and creating what would have been easy pickings for the Germans.

As a result the failed experiment was abruptly ended – some say in the March of 1940, but I think they continued for a while after that.

All these years on, that illuminating idea is now largely forgotten and, during the intervening years, most of the evidence of the chain of lights has disappeared into the darkness.

Many were dismantled, but some of the sites still retain their thick, reinforced concrete bases (including those at Little Leighs and Dovercourt).

Apart from that, very little else survives – that is apart from my friend's “circle of light” on Kit’s Hill.

Maldon and Burnham Standard: The searchlights were meant to blind German bombersThe searchlights were meant to blind German bombers (Image: Image: Jon Yuill)

The Kit’s Hill example is, in fact, the only survivor, the very last remaining of the type anywhere in the world. In 2001, a survey of the site was undertaken by military archaeologist Fred Nash, but I decided to go and take a look for myself.

It is located on strictly private land, but having obtained permission from the farmer, I parked the car and crossed the field to the overgrown, rusting remains.

I could make out what Fred Nash had described 23 years earlier as “a twelve-sided structure, built of steel sheeting and angle iron, measuring 50 feet across by 7 feet high”.

It still appeared as a “large rusting enclosure open to the sky” and “much of the sheeting had corroded or fallen off”.

When it was operational, the whole thing would have been fiercely guarded and well maintained.

Originally painted grey, the 12 side pieces would have held polished mirrors and there would have been a floodlight in the centre, powered by an adjacent generator.

Standing there I could imagine how those mirrors would have once pushed the intensely bright light upwards and sideways – creating what could, indeed, be described in my friend’s words as a “circle of light”.