(Image: Dave Johnson, reproduced with permission)
The UK is littered with deserted air bases, lonely yet poignant reminders of a time when Europe was torn apart by war. Most surviving airfields were heavy bomber bases hurriedly constructed amid the quiet British countryside during World War Two, often utilising three large runways in an “A-frame” layout. Many were returned to agricultural use after the war. But even today their giant forms can still be seen from the air, hiding in the long grass and adopting a far more serene atmosphere than was ever present in their active days.
Hundreds of airfields were built across Britain before and after the outbreak of war. The latest generation of heavy bombers required extensive runways, hangars, dispersal facilities and support buildings. Many abandoned airfields are visible on Google Earth, especially in southern and eastern counties. Brunton Airfield (above) in Northumberland, a former wartime training base, had no large hangars but the runways and hard standings are well preserved, in addition to bomb shelters and several abandoned buildings.
Some former bases – like the Great West Aerodrome (now Heathrow) grew into massive international airports. Others remain military bases, light airfields or industrial estates, with companies taking advantage of vast empty hangars. RAF Winthorpe (above right) is now part of the Newark Showground and retains a private air museum. Syerston airfield (above), is especially well preserved.
For the vast majority, however, 1945 saw wartime airfields returned to the farmers and landowners that they were purchased from. The images above reveal only runway outlines, while dispersal areas are slowly reclaimed. Despite their slow disappearance, these modern ruins remain a treasure trove of recent history, with crumbling control towers and other abandoned buildings betraying their former purpose.
(Public domain image)
The wartime airfield above is RAF Kings Cliffe – an extensive facility with three runways, a control tower, fuel dump, bomb stores and various support facilities. But a present day view (below) shows the extent to which Kings Cliffe has reverted to farmland in the decades following the end of World War Two, as trees consume the abandoned runways and fields fill the gaps between.
The airfield’s outline is clear from the air, but at ground level it might go unnoticed, passed off as an ordinary farmer’s field, its history unrecognised. The images below reflect the relics of wartime Kings Cliffe as viewed from the ground, when urban explorers left the beaten track to document its modern ruins. They present a fascinating reminder of its former use, and highlight the history that hides behind the hedgerows of rural England.
To locate hundreds of abandoned airfields throughout the UK, explore Google Earth from the comfort of your home computer and look for the distinctive A-frame layout of the former runways. Often they’ve almost vanished, but large hangars or hard standings may still be visible. It’s rare for an heavy bomber base to disappear without trace, even after more than 60 years.
Dreaded by aviation enthusiasts, a white cross daubed across the ends of a runways denote that particular runway – and often the base itself- to be closed to air traffic. Without constant maintenance, it’s not long before weeds sprout and cracks appear in the vast expanse of concrete. The disused runway above belongs to Wisley Airfield in Surrey, while the abandoned RAF Finmere also makes for good urban exploring.