Architecture: The battle of Britain's old airfields: Is Biggin Hill, wartime base for RAF heroes, destined to become just so many offices? Callum Murray reports on its sale and uncertain future

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The Independent Culture
On either side of the road between Bromley and Westerham in Kent, at the crown of a small hill, stands a group of suburban brick buildings behind wire fences. This is West Camp, once the technical and operational nerve centre of Biggin Hill, the most famous fighter station of the Battle of Britain.

Last month the Ministry of Defence sold West Camp, with the exception of the St George's chapel of remembrance. The sale included two hangars and a group of between 20 and 30 buildings designed in a rugged neo-Georgian style and dating from the Thirties. These included the station headquarters, the medical quarters and decontamination annexe, the sergeants' mess, airmen's quarters and workshops where Spitfires and Hurricanes were repaired throughout the Second World War.

The buildings played their part in the events of summer 1940, surviving repeated German raids. Taken individually, none is remarkable and so none is listed.

What would be really remarkable would be to find a building at a UK airfield that was listed. The military aviation building is not a type that has been generally regarded as either suitably historic or sufficiently rare to be worth listing; between 600 and 700 airfields were in use in Britain during the Second World War, each with its standard RAF neo-Georgian buildings. In 1942, new airfields were being completed at the rate of one every three days; by 1945, 360,000 acres of countryside were given over to airfields and landing strips.

Much of that land was returned to agricultural use after VE day, and you will still come across a Nissen hut sheltering tractors and farm equipment, or a hangar providing a makeshift garage for a combine harvester. At least two prisons - the notorious Long Kesh in Northern Ireland and Ford Open Prison - are former airfields, as is RAF Duxford, Cambridgeshire, a branch of the Imperial War Museum, and the RAF's own museum at Hendon, north London.

Some wartime airfields are still used by the RAF. Some, such as Lakenheath, Suffolk, and Greenham Common, Berkshire, were taken over by the US Air Force from 1945; some, like Biggin Hill, became civil airfields. Many more have simply disappeared beneath housing estates and business parks. This process is likely to accelerate as the Ministry of Defence disposes of property as part of the 'peace dividend'.

Is it worth saving these ghostly memories of Britain's finest hour? And if it is, what protection is there for such buildings? There are fewer than 30 listed RAF buildings in Britain. Of these, most date from the days of the First World War and the Royal Flying Corps, and the most recent from 1920. Not a single airfield building of the Second World War era enjoys listed status.

In Deserted Bastions: Historic Naval & Military Architecture, published last year by Save Britain's Heritage (pounds 7.95), Roger Bowdler wrote: 'The vast majority of Second World War RAF buildings were strictly utilitarian and temporary in nature. They thus belong more to the realms of industrial archaeology than architecture.'

The buildings of the West Camp at Biggin Hill are not temporary, but they are utilitarian - with one very obvious exception. In a separate sale last month, the officers' mess on the other side of the road from the main group of buildings was auctioned for pounds 535,000. The MoD has declined to name the buyer or the purpose for which the building will be used.

By the standards of a country house, which it resembles, the officers' mess is austere; by RAF standards, it is a baroque extravaganza, boasting a three-storey centre bay, two-storey wings, a viewing platform on the roof and a front entrance marked by a grand portico. Behind it are terraced gardens and a swimming pool. Inside it is shabby, although relatively unspoiled, having been used for its original purpose until the RAF departed from West Camp two years ago.

If the officers' mess at Biggin Hill has so far failed to gain a listing - despite Bromley Borough Council's best efforts - what chance have the far more humdrum buildings that make up the rest of this and other Second World War stations?

What seems likely is that most West Camp buildings will become anonymous open-plan offices. Dan Graham, the property developer who bought West Camp, will not say what he plans for the historic airfield buildings. 'He doesn't yet know himself,' says his spokesman, who stresses that Mr Graham is an enthusiatic pilot who flies from Biggin Hill regularly.

Bromley Borough Council has opened negotiations with Mr Graham to try to buy back one or both of the hangars, with the intention of establishing another Battle of Britain museum on the site. The council claims that a feasibility study carried out recently by consultants showed that such an idea is potentially viable.

Julian Temple, an industrial archaeologist with a special interest in military aviation buildings, is compiling a report for English Heritage on England's airfields. 'I'm very much for preserving things in the right location,' he says. 'It would be nice to see a museum at Biggin Hill emphasising local or regional history.'

Mr Temple's report may suggest a strategy for the preservation of other wartime airfield sites. In the absence of such a strategy, campaigners could find themselves obliged to appeal to the mercy of developers. The council's initial approach to Mr Graham has elicited a price for the hangars which, in the words of one councillor, is 'a little out of this world'. Building a Battle of Britain museum at Biggin Hill seems likely to be a case of per ardua ad astra - the Air Force motto meaning 'by toilsome ways to the stars'.

(Photographs omitted)

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