If you’re planning the destruction of the world then you need a fair few people. And if you’re going to have a load of people sitting around you might as well put them somewhere nice – and build a big settlement to keep them happy. Hell, you only get one chance at nuclear war and you wouldn’t want your guys to be the ones who cocked it up.
It’s the bomb that will bring us together
Which is to say: when the Americans set up home at RAF Upper Heyford, a fairly inconsequential WW2 bomber base about ten miles north of Oxford, they really went overboard on building the town. They created an entire new community alongside the runway with school, supermarket, petrol station, cinema, hospital, florist, baseball courts, diners, pubs and long rows of apartments. They looked after their men. But then the war ended: one day in 1993 they left, took their planes and bombs back to the states and left the keys under the doormat for the MOD to pick up. The MOD wanted to put 10,000 homes on the site. The local council disagreed. Fifteen years later they’re only just sorting out their differences. With redevelopment work imminent (it’s taken so long that English Heritage have just listed a load of the buildings as they are now of ‘historic’ interest) we went to have a look.
Map of key locations we visited on the base.
Get the 25A bus from central Oxford and it’ll drop you right in the centre of the base. It’s largely as you expect – high fences, security checkpoints, decaying signs threatening the Official Secrets Act on anything that moves…except that there’s quite a lot of people around for an abandoned base. An awful lot. Because a large chunk of the better housing (it seems to be the old RAF accommodation) seems to have gone into private hands and is still lived in. And on the actual base a scrappy collection of light industry and commercial users have moved into the old sheds and formed a piecemeal industrial estate. It’s some strange society living inside the carcass of the old development, surrounded by abandoned buildings on three sides.
A sixteen pump gas station with the oil sold in dollars.
But jump over the fence (see map for best points) and you’re in a very strange ghost town. Most of the brick buildings on the civilian side seem to have been built late in the base’s lifespan and have more of a Reagan utilitarian feel than the original WW2 sheds that exist around the fringes of the site. Endless barracks, military police offices and recreation buildings sit there, locked up and amazingly free of vandalism. Photos suggest that there are ways into many of these buildings – we didn’t find many. It’s a fairly secure and disturbingly tidy site that’s not exactly the easiest spot to get to if you’re a bored teenager.
Even in the 1980s it didn’t even seem to attract that many peace protesters – there was some camp of sort but the airmen didn’t seem too put off by the existence of a few grizzled hippies and it played second fiddle to Greenham Common where the juicier ICBMS were based. All that was based here was a rapid-response unit: you’d sit in you plane with the engine running and the payload ready to go for a four hour shift. And if, after four hours, Reagan hadn’t pressed the red button then you got out of your plane and went to the diner for something to eat.
There are hundreds of these dormitory rooms across the site.
This seems to have been something of a boomtown in old Ronald’s time – in 1986 planes took off from here on the botched raid to blow up Gaddafi in Tripoli. (At the same time down the road Boris Johnson was leading the Oxford Union, the Headington shark was raised as a vague statement about the madness of nuclear war and Amelia Fletcher was sitting on Cowley Road playing around with the words to ‘Talaluh Gosh’. It was a bit more of a polarised world back then.) They also tried to prove their worth by taking part in Operation Desert Storm before everything shut up shop.
One of the worryingly common signs pleading not to lock your fellow man in various small containers.
So there’s an ‘recreation center’ (still displaying the times that videos should be returned by) with endless parking lots and on the other side of the site a bowling alley, baseball pitches, a running track and a school. Take care when visiting the latter – while it’s entertaining to find bags of early 90s Mariah Carey tapes in old classrooms there’s a nasty taste in the air and a load of asbestos lying around. We couldn’t even get into the perfectly preserved Volleyball court. And this is all aside from the enormous infrastructure (miles of fencing, water towers, a bloody great big hospital) that are harder to shift. No wonder it’s hard to work out what do with the site, especially since it’s now considered historic.
The older, asbestos-heavy sheds that housed the USAF high school.
We didn’t even get onto the runway itself or get a chance to see its many enormous hangars. It’s just too big a site and there is some token security – the runway that was reinforced for F1-11 bombers is now used as a standing area for thousands of company cars so there’s proper security and they’re not too happy about you wandering around. However there are tours that are run on ad-hoc basis around the military elements of the base during the week – give the industrial estate a call to find out more.