Mataeriel Culture: The Archaeology of 20th Century Conflict

By John Schofield; William Gray Johnson et al. | Go to book overview

15

Historic airfields: evaluation and conservation

JEREMY LAKE

He sat smoking on the bench in the well-remembered crew room, fascinated by the weather-stained poster still fluttering on one damp wall. The door, which had never closed properly, now swung to and fro in the whistling wind, groaning on its single rusty hinge. There had once been laughter as well as tragedy in these ghostly surroundings and life had been simple; in four years the sense of purpose sustaining aircrews, ground crews and a whole people behind them had withered.

(Boyle 1955:282)

This passage describes a visit to a deserted aerodrome in Yorkshire by Leonard Cheshire who, as leader of 617 Squadron, had demonstrated the effectiveness of precision bombing in a celebrated series of raids. The opening scenes of Anthony Asquith's film The Way to the Stars (1945) explored in similar fashion the thoughts of a veteran returning to another deserted airbase, as a ploughshare pulled by a horse team returned to agriculture land formerly used for waging aggressive war.

These two images have relevance as, since 1989 and the consequent rationalization of Britain's Defence Estate, many of those airfields retained for military use during the Cold War have been earmarked for disposal and a variety of new uses (Blake 1995). It was this process, in addition to a growing awareness of the need to evaluate the historical importance of twentieth-century military sites, that prompted English Heritage to undertake a review of surviving sites with the objective of identifying the most significant examples for protection. The aim of this chapter is to explore a range of challenges and issues arising from this survey, through a discussion first of the contextual significance and interpretation of military airfields and then the criteria for evaluation that have underpinned the selection of key sites and structures in England for protection.


BACKGROUND

As befits a century riddled by paradoxes - Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes (1994) - awareness of the civilizing and even peacemaking potential of powered flight contrasted with a growing realization in the inter-war period that it was the most

-172-

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