Britain’s best-preserved 1930s RAF airfield is enjoying a resurgence as a centre for historic vehicles of all kinds, as Philip Whiteman discovers
When Bicester Heritage MD Dan Geoghegan says, “we are not about the past, but the future of the past”, he is manifestly not overstating the claim. Not so very long ago, local campaigners were bending the needle in their fight to preserve the former RAF airfield, with its now almost unique all-grass omnidirectional ‘landing ground’, from becoming yet another housing development. Even when they won the day, there was no guarantee the disused historic buildings ? fenced off and decaying ? would find a buyer sympathetic to the aviation cause. Today, the air is alive with the sound of building work, the first resident businesses are established and a series of motoring and fly-in events have woven Bicester Heritage into the fabric of the Vintage Sports Car Club and Vintage Aircraft Club scene.
If those resident businesses are primarily involved in the old-car world, it is understandable: Dan is a regular competitor in VSCC events and the team on site includes characters like fellow VSCC member Philip White, who joined Bicester Heritage from Bristol Cars Ltd. However, the move to make the site a centre for an ‘arrive and drive, marina-style service’ is based on a sound market analysis: by Dan’s estimate, the historic motor vehicle industry is worth £4.3b anually and offers employment for 28,000 people. Being sited in the middle of the country, close to the motor sports companies that have grown up around nearby Silverstone, Bicester is ideally placed to tap into it.
While Dan and his fellow directors come with less of an obvious interest in aviation, it is clear that the history of the place has fired their enthusiasm. Bicester’s life as a military airfield began in 1916, when it was used by the Royal Flying Corps. In the mid 1920s it was developed as a bomber base, its two A Type hangars being completed in 1926. It was further expanded in the years immediately before WWII, the two C Type hangars (Nos 2 & 3) being added in 1936. Notable activities included the first flight of the Handley Page Halifax and WWII bomber crew operational training on Blenheims.
Post war, RAF Bicester led rather a quieter life and was not subject to further development by the MoD. Today, according to English Heritage, ‘it retains better than any other military airbase in Britain, the layout and fabric relating to both pre-1930s military aviation and the development of Britain’s strategic bomber force.’
The care that is going in to restoration of the buildings has to be seen to be believed. It’s a real eye-opener to those of us who have spent their formative years at former RAF airfields, watching the old infrastructure crumbling and being torn down. Here it is cherished and is in the process of being brought lovingly back to life.
The big question is how much of that life will be aviation related. Encouragingly, aeroplanes are mentioned throughout Bicester Heritage’s web pages (www.bicesterheritage.co.uk) and Bicester Gliding Centre (www.windrushers.org.uk) heads the Specialists Directory?but all the other companies listed deal with old motors. Dan Geoghegan is keen to attract aircraft operators and, as we have reported in ‘Old Timers’, the WWI Aviation Heritage Trust has taken up residence in the restored Fire Party Hut. There are hopes that one of the big names in the historic aircraft restoration and maintenance world will come to Bicester, and this would certainly put the place on the map.
Meanwhile, a smattering of private owners continues to enjoy space in the one C hangar that remains on the ‘air’ side of the fence, and visitors comfortable with grass runways and ‘a challenging environment for inexperienced pilots and those not familiar with cable launching of gliders’ can fly in on a strict PPR basis (call Bicester Gliding Centre, tel: 01869 252493). We know there is huge amount of enthusiasm and passion in the aviation world: it would be lovely if more historic aircraft found a home alongside the cars at this wonderful Oxfordshire airfield.