diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 05, 2013


Across the road from Uxbridge town centre, World War II was won. And if you're thinking that sounds rather too grand a claim, see what you think later...

They hid Bomber Command well. You turn left out of the tube station, walk straight past the shopping centre and dip underneath the roundabout. A few years ago you'd have reached the gates of RAF Uxbridge, but the MOD closed that down in 2010 as part of a cost saving exercise. Its 110 acres are destined to become a vast housing estate, if the market ever picks up, under the overall mantle of St Andrew's Park. But for now the gates are locked, and the security fence remains, and 1000+ homes remain unbuilt.

Except look just to the left of the gates and there's a remarkable public footpath. Step through and you get to walk amidst the mothballed remains of an air force base for almost half a mile. Don't expect runways and hangars, this is the barracks end of the site, so what you'll see is mostly utilitarian residential architecture. Some of the forces families hereabouts got to live in dull flats, while others lived in council house-style terraces. They're looking rather worse for wear by now, some lining partly-overgrown streets, others with their doors flapping open to the weather. Continuing down the slope the site opens out to leafy parkland where the river Pinn runs through the valley, although there's no getting through for now, nor has there been for some time.

The path turns beyond the river, near a sign for "The Pub" which no longer sells subsidised pints. A few new foundations are ready, and workmen with vans and diggers are busy doing minor building work even at the weekend. Keep going past the civilian entrance for cars, and veer right towards a white-painted mansion. This is Hillingdon House, whose estate the government compulsorily purchased in 1915, and which would later become HQ to Bomber Command. The developers have it pencilled in as a hotel and restaurant, but for now it stands out of reach beyond temporary fencing. You may be doubting you're on the right road by now, but that was the idea, and helped ensure the Germans never suspected. On down the horse chestnut avenue, through the gates, past the car park, and stop beside the Hurricane. That unassuming shelter down the steps, there's a whole wartime bunker under there.

The Battle of Britain Bunker has been open to the public by appointment since 1975, but only recently has The Curator opened up the place to allcomers. For three months (ending at the end of June), it's open each weekend between 10am and 4pm, and all you have to do is get here. Volunteers will welcome you, accept any donations you care to give, then direct you down into the earth. The staircase has more than seventy steps, in case stairs aren't really your thing, and they're lined with quotes and photos and facsimile posters. And then you're into the bombproof corridors, protected beneath umpteen feet of earth and concrete.

Beyond a mini exhibition, take your seat for a 12 minute film in the former Signals Room. It's nicely informative, as you'd expect when The Curator is presenting, yet cut together with a certain endearing amateurism. And when that's over you get to enter the Operations Room, which is the heart of things, and where (if you're lucky) you'll get a proper explanatory talk. In the centre of the room is a sloping table with a map of southern England - the area covered by No. 11 (Fighter) Group. It's set out to show the aerial situation at 11:30am on 15th September 1940, a time when Churchill himself was present, and which turned out to be the peak of the Battle of Britain. Up on the walls is a complex system of lights, one vertical set for each squadron at each participating airfield base. By watching these change, and matching them with the coded tokens being pushed about on the table, instant decisions were made that helped change the course of British history.

Those decisions were taken in the room above, behind the curved glass, from the green swivel chair. A separate window shields the Royal Box - an unexpected luxury added for a visit by the King and Queen... who then never turned up again. This upper level now holds a museum, and a comprehensive one at that, full of pictures and documents and general ephemera. Some relate to the bunker itself, others to organisations like the Observer Corps which used to be based up above on site. I particularly liked the homemade chess set where a cartoon Hitler faced a cartoon Churchill across a map of northern Europe, with bombs for pawns on one side and radar towers on the other. But most of all I loved the reality of being somewhere very very important, beneath the ground, in the middle of suburbia.

If you'd like to experience this unique space, get yourself out to Uxbridge one weekend in the next two months. It's not yet certain whether regular access to the bunker will continue after that, but keep your fingers crossed that funding is available and The Curator approves.

» the Bunker's website
» Hillingdon invites you
» History of the bunker
» 21 photos from inside and out
» Virtual tour
» Ian's visited, and so's Pete

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