I arranged to spend yesterday with a bloke I’d never met before, just on the strength of a couple of e-mails and a phone call. Leave those ‘fnarr’ comments at the door – we’d arranged to meet to ride a route around Gloucestershire’s disused WWII airfields. These usually desolate places are always alive to me. Their history and stories adds vitality to the cracked concrete and decaying brick.
This chap (who I won’t name because his job means he won’t want it plastered across the web) took the trouble to get in touch, offer to plan a route, and spend a day of his leave riding it with me. All for someone he’d never met. You’d have to try pretty hard to find a more decent bloke.
We met just outside Cheltenham and set off, clouds threatening, into the Cotswolds. We rode just under 130 miles. We stopped for a cuppa, but otherwise we were ragging around the backlanes with hardly a mile on A roads. Most of the lanes had gravel, grass, even rocks in the middle – and they were just fantastic riding. We saw empty fields that had once been runways, bases that had first seen action in WWI with the Royal Flying Corps, and even perfectly preserved control towers. For an airfield junkie this was opium.
Finally, we ended up at the site of RAF Down Ampney. Like most disused bases, it wasn’t easy to find, tucked down at the end of what had been its perimeter track, now crumbling concrete pitted with pools.
I’d wanted to find Down Ampney for a while, and it seemed fitting that we saw it just three days before the 66th anniversary of Operation Market Garden – the assault on Arnhem – where this airfield played a central part as a glider base.
We stood on the pegs and bumped our way down to the old Guardhouse site, where new airmen would have had their first sight of the base. Now, apart from the broken concrete track, some grass, trees and scrub, there’s just the memorial to the men who served there. Those wreaths had just been laid at the weekend – the closest Sunday to the anniversary of Operation Market Garden.
For me, what’s left of these old, disused airfields is incredibly precious. They’re unsanitised, not glossed over with modern interpretation and they speak – as a consequence – incredibly directly.
It would be easy to write something schmalzy about ‘their loss to gain our freedom’, but it’s not a concept I can even start to understand – despite having two parents who lived (and served) through WWII.
I suspect, too, that most of the men flying from Down Ampney were more concerned about protecting – and being protected by – their colleagues than they were about any higher, more abstract ideal.
As I stood on the runway of Down Ampney with the rain lashing in, I couldn’t even begin to imagine the fear, the confusion, the apprehension they must have felt as they climbed into flimsy gliders not knowing what was waiting on the other side of the channel.
And I’m bloody grateful that I don’t have to.