(Image: Peter Moore; the converted control tower at HMS Owl, Scottish Highlands)
Over the years, concepts of adaptive reuse have begun creeping into the mainstream in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Only a few decades back, the idea that you would save old buildings by converting them into homes, restaurants and offices would have seemed bizarre to many. But today, it’s a growth industry, spurred on by TV shows like Channel 4’s Restoration Man.
Previously on Urban Ghosts, we’ve looked at how shipping containers and other defunct structures have been transformed for modern use. Today, we’re applying that same eye to the UK’s numerous abandoned airfields, as we take a look at a series of repurposed control tower conversions that are helping to preserve 20th century history.
Converted Control Tower at RAF Little Walden, Essex
(Image: Glyn Baker; converted control tower at former RAF Little Walden, Essex)
Established during World War Two, RAF Little Walden once saw bombers taking off from its runways and heading out over the channel to take on Nazi Germany. Following the war, and a brief active stint in the Cold War, it fell into disuse. Eventually auctioned off, the airfield itself was converted into a memorial park, while the abandoned control tower was repurposed as a residential home.
Situated on the edge of what is now a large, empty field, the converted control tower today looks slightly surreal. While its structure and utilitarian paint coating belie its wartime origins, the surrounding garden and decking make it feel distinctly suburban. Currently in use as a single family’s residence, the converted tower retains few of its original features, but is nevertheless mesmerising to look at. Currently Grade II listed, the historic control tower has found new life in the 21st century, thanks to these changes, when so many others have been demolished or abandoned amid the ruins of lonely wartime airfields. While the 1940s interior may be lost, the outside lives on.
Repurposed Control Tower at RAF Hinstock/HMS Godwit, Shropshire
(Image: wwatfam; former Royal Navy control tower conversion at HMS Godwit)
Somewhere in Shropshire lies a peculiar-looking structure. A former control tower at a long-closed RAF training school that was used during World War Two, the building today still has a slightly-military air to it. Built out of redbrick and squatting a mere three stories high, it could be a British council estate designed for a dystopian future. In reality, it just happens to be one of the UK’s oddest little Bed and Breakfasts.
Known as HMS Godwit, the abandoned Fleet Air Arm airfield (which was also used by the RAF) once hosted training exercises in the immediate run-up to the Battle of Britain. Long left derelict after the war ended, the repurposed control tower eventually wound up being converted in 2005, just when home building and property renovations were reaching their pre-crash peak in Britain. Impressively, many of the original features were retained even after it became a B&B. It’s still possible, for example, to make out the old chimney and some of the exterior designs.
The property has since appeared on the market as a family home, suggesting it may no longer be a B&B. At any rate, this important slice of UK aviation history is being preserved for future generations, in one form or another.
Hatfield Aerodrome (Converted Hangar & Control Tower), Hertfordshire
(Image: Rob Taylor; converted control tower and hangar, now the Next Generation Club)
Not every conversion of an old control tower has become a residential space. At Hatfield, in Hertfordshire, the town’s abandoned aerodrome was bought up in the 1990s and transformed completely. Along with a vast, empty aircraft hangar, offices and an on-site fire station, the defunct control tower was converted into a hotel complete with a large health and fitness center.
This large-scale example of adaptive reuse is certainly impressive, to say the least. From the outside, large tracts of the former aerodrome look like they’ve never been anything but a leisure center. On the other hand, the converted control tower itself still retains enough original features to likely make purists happy… especially considering that the other option was demolition. Had things gone slightly differently, Hatfield Aerodrome’s abandoned control tower could now be just so much rubble. As it is, the converted building still stands, watching over a landscape it has surveyed since it was built in the late-1940s.
Converted Watch Tower at RAF Findo Gask, Perthshire
(Image: Stephen Country Homes; artist’s impression of converted control tower at Clathymore)
For a long, long time, the control tower at RAF Findo Gask near Clathymore, outside Perth, stood hauntingly empty. Used by Polish pilots in World War Two, the tower was abandoned soon after and left to rot. For decades upon decades, it slowly crumbled away amid the bleak, beautiful Scottish landscape. As harsh winters rolled in off the Atlantic, the abandoned control tower began to sag and warp and decay and break. Eventually, nothing was left but a ruin, forged in concrete. An unbreakable reminder of a war long-since over.
(Image: Peter Gamble; Clathymore control tower when still abandoned)
However, that now seems to be changing. Luxury property developers are now looking to transform the old tower into an elegant family home. While most of the original features will be lost, the structure will keep its basic shape, right down to the placement of the windows. Meanwhile, an additional glass tower will be added to let in extra light. It may not thrill all heritage fans, but this undeniably exciting project is one way to preserve at least the ghost of this abandoned control tower, currently doomed to otherwise rot away into nothing.
HMS Owl (Fearn Airfield), Scottish Highlands
(Image: Peter Moore; converted control tower at HMS Owl in Scotland)
Lost in the grand wilderness of Scotland’s rugged, windswept highlands sits this once-derelict wartime control tower. Located not too far from Moray Firth – the vast inlet channelling the raw power and icy storms of the North Sea deep into Scotland’s interior – the tower was for many years a silent wreck. Windows were gone, doors had been torn off, and the interior looked as if nothing was ever there to begin with. All that remained was a set of bricks clinging mournfully to a concrete frame.
(Image: Peter Moore; HMS Owl control tower while still derelict)
Like the Clathymore tower at Findo Gask, though, the decay has now been firmly reversed. Over the past few years, the exterior of the abandoned airfield watch tower has been slowly brought back to life – and looks stunning. By the looks of things, the original structure has been preserved and restored in a sensitive manner. We’re unsure if the end product will be used as a full time home or holiday accommodation, but it’s understood that a repurposed Nissen hut nearby has been opened for guests. The converted control tower at RAF Owl has featured on Channel 4 and will, we hope, provide inspiration for future adaptive reuse projects incorporating forgotten wartime buildings.