The airless reception area with its cheerful, exhortative corporate posters made me think of communist Russia. Dark wood. Grey, worn carpet. Grey fluorescent lights. Every so often, there would be a sharp, electronic bleep and the door would get pushed open. A grey-suited figure would scuttle past and the door, on its spring, would creak slowly shut. I thought affectionately of WD40.
Waiting on the single, plastic seat so kindly provided for visitors, I thought too of the sunshine I’d left behind as I picked up my visitors’ badge at Reception. I resolved, as soon as I got home, to get the Ural’s keys off their hook and out into the evening lanes.
By the time I’d dug under the wire and out of Stalag Corporate, the sun was thinking about a stiff G&T and putting its feet up. But, at this time of year, the shadows seem longer and richer in the evenings. And I had a good reason – as well as blowing stale air out of my lungs – to ride.
I’ve been looking at old airfields since around 2006. I’ve lived in Bampton since 2002. I’ve ridden to Lechlade to the rather fine Lechlade Fish Bar and sat by the Thames, enjoying their finest, countless times. So how had I missed RAF Kelmscott?
Worse than that, Kelmscott Pork Sausages had found their way into the Saturday morning frying pan increasingly often. So why did I not know about RAF Kelmscott?
Simple. There’s nothing left of it.
One day, perhaps twenty years off, most of the old bases I spend time exploring will be like this. Fields. Sky. Hedges. Nothing to show they were once home to men, places where they faced fear and won, mostly.
So, out through Clanfield, slightly reluctantly past the Clanfield Tavern, and out towards Radcot, turning right to Lechlade. I had an old map, no new map, and a bit of guesswork to go by.
Usually, airfields – like real tennis courts – are easy to spot. A concrete edge to a road. A metal-framed window in a semi-derelict brick building. Hawthorn and elder grown up around foundations. Not Kelmscott.
You could ride past fifty times and not realise you were passing one of D-Day’s main stages.
In May 1944, you’d have struggled to hear English spoken at Kelmscott. More than 200 Polish paratroops swooped down in mock assaults in preparation for D-Day.
The four, grass strips that constituted Kelmscott’s runways had seldom seen so much action. As a Beam Approach School for Airspeed Oxfords and relief landing ground for RAF Watchfield, Kelmscott was never going to be a big base. But, as a training site for D-Day, it was crucial.
So I put the sidecar’s wheels on the verge, stopped the engine, pulled off my gloves and helmet, and sat watching the sun set.
Not a lot happens now at RAF Kelmscott. The background track, apart from swifts chiding was the mordanted tone of a combine. The corndust on the edge of a far field was rising against the sun. A few cars swished past, looking at the silly man on his sidecar.
There was a depth to the quiet. The sort of silence that only comes from relative isolation and space. After a day of meetings, noise and running to keep up, I relaxed into it. And enjoyed the sunset.
Eventually, shattering the peace, I started the engine and rolled towards Kelmscott and The Plough, one of my favourite pubs.
As I clacked down the lane and drew level with the pub, I realised the garden was full, every table sat four or more or squeezed six. Stopping under the gaze of the whole garden, taking off my helmet and walking, publicly, inside seemed ostentatious, obvious. Oooh, look at me! So I rode on.
It’s hard enough to look at the future of a business in a recession, without that solid lump of worry rising. But I get to go home every evening, safely and securely. In Spring 1944, dropping out of a plane, into a countryside where your mother tongue would get you mistaken for a German, nothing was certain, nothing fixed. But the odds were far from good.
Sometimes, as I’ve often said before, I worry too much. You’d have thought I’d have learned by now.