A few weeks ago a friend and I went out exploring Oxfordshire and we came across an abandoned airbase in one of the small villages we drove through. After a bit of investigation on foot and later on t’internet I discovered that although RAF Upper Heyford was dwindling at the hands of developers it also had a heritage centre which ran tours. After getting in touch, Dave, an ex-USAF serviceman who grew up on the base and co-runs the tours on a voluntary basis, informed me that the waiting list ran past our leaving date but that he’d try and squeeze us in to a cancellation spot. Happily, he was good on his word so today we headed out under dubious-looking skies for some cold and windy urbex.
I was curious how it was going to go. We were in a group of 10, I wasn’t sure if we would be jostling for a view and kept on a short leash. But the atmosphere was laid back and non-restrictive. Although there are buildings we couldn’t go in to, due to dilapidation and safety issues, we got a good look at most of what we wanted to see and the guys were very accommodating, clearly passionate about the site and keen to share their enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, many of the buildings are falling in to disrepair due to a lack of proper maintenance and though some of them have now been given scheduled monument status, others are haven’t been so lucky. Dave led the tour, and was full of interesting stories and facts about life on the base as-was and the scenarios that each building would have lived through daily as well as less frequently in emergency situations. But it was about as far from a dry lecture as it could be. Having a personal experience of both life on the base as a child and of military service I quickly found myself absorbed in the more human aspects of his stories…what must it have been like to live under conditions where you had 3 minutes to scramble a plane…how had cold war mentality impacted people’s daily lives here…how did people cope in NBC (nuclear, biological & chemical) suits and gear for hours at a time? I’ve never taken more than a passing interest in military history, but the way it was done by these guys engaged me so fully I couldn’t quite believe that 3 and half hours passed without notice. Dave’s colleagues added to the excellent balance too, with Neil bringing knowledge and enthusiasm for urban exploration (as well as motorbikes – always a pleasure to meet a fellow biker!). As Mickey drifted around taking pics, Neil pointed him towards details of interest that might otherwise have gone unnoticed and filled us in on how they scavenged authentic equipment and material from another site just prior to its demolition (or rather, during!).
These guys are doing an amazing job, unpaid, to maintain a crucial part of our country’s heritage. Not only that but they’re doing it in an informative and entertaining way and giving people a thoroughly enjoyable Sunday. If you have interest in urbex, in the military past or you’re just looking for a novel and interesting way to spend a bit of your weekend, look them up here or you can drop them a line at tours@RAFUHHC.org.uk They’ll also be exhibiting in September at Banbury museum, go along and say hi!
Thanks guys for a great day and best of luck in September!