Friday, 11 November 2016
Stow Maries Aerodrome: A Place of War (1916) and Wildlife (2016)
A few miles away from where I live, an aerodrome from the Great War is being conserved. From 1916 until the end of the war, the men and women of 37 (Home Defence) Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (later Royal Air Force) were based here, but in 1919 the squadron moved to Biggin Hill in Kent. After this time, the site - a few huts in a field - remained empty and in the following years the buildings were used to store farm equipment. The site was never developed and neither was the land around it - and the buildings fell into decay. Today, the recent conservation work has given the site some activity once again and it's beginning to look as it did a hundred years ago. No other near-complete Great War aerodrome exists in England.
As well as being a place of history and of commemoration, the aerodrome has become a place for wildlife. In fact, wildlife is encouraged here. So the empty huts and the surrounding fields of rough grassland and scrub land, have become the homes and hunting grounds of barn owls, tawny owls, and little owls, song birds and hares. There are also water voles at the pond on the site.
I've been there two or three times now and each time I've looked for the owls. But I haven't had any luck with them. I was told by the volunteers on one of my visits that the little owls had been peeking out from their ruined building the previous day for TV presenter Chris Packham to photograph. I watched the building for a while, sitting outside the officers' mess (or cafe) with my mug of tea, but the owls didn't appear for me. I really needed some food to lure them out (or perhaps I just wasn't famous enough for them!)
But if I haven't seen much of the wildlife on my visit, there's plenty of history to see here. Not all the huts have been conserved yet, but many have. These include the squadron offices (housing the museum), the blacksmith's forge, the ambulance hut and the aircraft hangers.
The duties of 37 Squadron included defending London from aerial attack (from Zeppelins). In such a country area, the sound of these early planes flying to and from the site must have had quite an impact on local folk. Even today it's quiet here, and any noise from the vintage aircraft (when they fly) is very noticeable. Tragically, ten servicemen from 37 Squadron did lose their lives in the war. At least one lost his life in an accident close to the site when his aircraft crashed. All the deaths must have hit the community hard - I imagine the pilots would have been known in the villages, drinking in the local pubs and attending the local church.
Remember the Tower poppies of a couple of years ago? Ten have been donated to the aerodrome by the bell ringers of a local church for the ten servicemen who lost their lives.
There are different events held here throughout the year - and these include a service here on Remembrance Sunday...
Stow Maries Aerodrome is a place I'll look forward to returning to. Hopefully I might even see the owls at last! But I'd also like to see how the conservation work is progressing and to learn more about the stories of the people who were based here.
For more info, I've included a link to the aerodrome website here.