Don’t Mention The War
With the country preparing for war against an expansionist-minded Germany, the estates were constructed in 1936 by builder John Laing on behalf of the Air Ministry, as part of the nascent RAF Harwell. The simple modern 2-bed terraced and 3-bed semi-detached North Drive houses were designated as married quarters for the ratings, whilst the elegantly proportioned Colonial style detached houses on tree-lined South Drive, with their garden bays and sash windows, were reserved for officers.
RAF Harwell became operational as a bomber station in 1937 and, in the early years of the war, Wellington bombers of No. 38 Group took off from here for bombing raids over Bremen, Essen and Cologne. In 1944 the base was reallocated to No. 30 Group, whose Albemarles towed the Horsa gliders that would drop the first wave of troops from 6th Airborne Division onto the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Our houses served as some of these men’s final billets for the few days before departure on the night of June 5th, as documented in Nick Hance’s excellent book Harwell: The Enigma Revealed, which also relates eyewitness testimony from one of the many Luftwaffe bombing raids on the airfield.
With the Luftwaffe finally swatted in 1945 and, following RAF Harwell’s brief post-war period as Transport Command, the land was transferred to the Ministry of Supply and, under their auspice, the UKAEA was formed on 1st January 1946. The RAF housing stock was inherited and, augmented by the construction of 200 prefabricated bungalows on the south and west sides of the site, followed by 12 new houses on Severn Road and an additional terrace of 4 houses on South Drive, were let to employees of the new facility. UKAEA also built estates in Wantage and Abingdon so as to avoid the creation of a new town at Harwell and ran their own distinctive fleet of blue buses, providing a subsidised commuter service from neighbouring areas.
The Aldfield and Chilton prefabs were Type B2 Aluminium Bungalows designed by the Aircraft Industries Research Organisation for Housing [AIROH]; itself charged with turning surplus aircraft manufacturing capacity over to address the urgent national housing shortage, as identified by the Housing Act of October 1944. The bungalows weighed nine tons each and were brought to the site by lorry in four pre-assembled sections, which were then lowered onto their concrete base by crane. A gang of German PoWs assisted with the on-site assembly.
The National Museum of Wales at St. Fagans have restored one of the few remaining AIROH B2s, relocated from Cardiff. They have a page of interior photographs here.
The last prefabs on Chilton Field were demolished in the mid 1980s and, since demolition, the land has been unused. On the western Aldfield estate, several concrete prefab bases are still extant, along with the occasional period artefact buried in the undergrowth.
Flogging the Family Silver
By the end of the 1980s, UKAEA no longer needed a housing-stock of its own to attract employees from afar so the North Drive and Severn Road houses, along with the UKAEA houses in Wantage and Abingdon, were sold to sitting tenants and a housing association. The South Drive houses were retained but tenancies were not renewed when their occupants moved on; the houses being boarded-up one by one as they fell empty. The estate roads of North Drive and their small enclosed areas of grassland were transferred to the North Drive Management Company, of which every property-owner here is a shareholder and liable to pay an annual maintenance charge for upkeep of these common areas.
The high value given to atomic research in the post-war years is reflected in the landscaped environment that was created in order to make this an attractive place to live and work. Woodland areas provide safe outdoor play opportunities for children and there is a traffic-free route to the shops on Curie Avenue. The whole site testifies to the optimism of the period and is a rare example of utopian thinking that somehow remains in harmony with its downland setting. Reminders of the old airbase include what looks like a sentry point where the AEA western footpath crosses the Icknield Way and many North Drive houses retain the sheds that were made from surplus Anderson Shelters.
Sir John Laing’s North Drive houses, though modest, were well-built and had an advanced specification for the 1930s, featuring cavity walls, internal coal-storage, first floor bathrooms and large windows providing plenty of natural light. A mystery feature is the first-floor connecting aperture between houses. In my house, the area between the fireplace and the inner wall in the smaller bedroom is a plasterboard partition the size of a doorway: this meets my neighbour’s first-floor landing. I can find no evidence of there ever having been connecting doors between the houses; most likely is that the houses were built with this option of internal connectivity, but that it was never used. *
Today, in 2011, only three of the ten Colonial style houses on South Drive remain occupied. The rest, including No.8 South Drive, the former home of Harwell’s first director, Sir John Cockroft, stand boarded, empty and decaying. We would like to see these buildings restored to use; with some or all possibly being converted to flats. But, if UKAEA and their developer partner Goodman have their way, then these high-quality houses will be demolished.
* Thanks to a commenter here who tells me that these connections did see some use, I finally worked out that they were designed-in for flexibility: the adjoining houses could be adapted easily to 3 -bed/1 bed pairs. This makes sense with the layout and within the context of a wartime airbase, where tenancies would have been short-term.