Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hullavington, Wiltshire

Backward glance (1): Beyond the perimeter fence

In this post last year I looked at an aircraft hangar at Hullavington and mused on my boyhood interest in airfields.

As a small boy I was fascinated by airfields. Airfields (not airports, which in the 1950s and 1960s were for the rich to travel from, and therefore out of bounds) were quiet, empty places, mostly, and oddly spacious in a countryside that, even then, was quite intensively farmed. I longed to see aeroplanes taking off and landing, but hardly ever seemed to be there at the right moment. So I had to be content with the purposeful impedimenta of the airfield, most of it unfamiliar to me but not too difficult to understand from its names alone. There was a perimeter fence (chain-link), a control tower (concrete), runways (ditto), grey parked vehicles (various), and a windsock (brightly coloured). For much of the time the windsock seemed to be the most animated thing around. Also occasionally on the move was a long grey low-slung truck, a low-loader in fact, sometimes spotted on neighbouring roads, apparently for moving bits of aircraft around.

And then there were hangars,† long and low, hugging the ground. Some even tried to blend into the ground with their grass-covered roofs. They had broad, sliding doors but these were usually closed and anyway were too distant for me to have seen what was inside. Still, when I see hangars, I’m fascinated by their tantalizing doors and their functional, often ground-hugging form. I’m still very ignorant of their history and complex typology – I see from a Ministry of Defence website that there are at least 56 different types in use in Britain alone, ranging from temporary portable structures to vast warehouse-like sheds that can take airliners or transport aircraft.

This one is a Type E hangar at RAF Hullavington in Wiltshire. Its design was introduced in 1937 – no doubt lots of hangars were being built around this time – and has a curving steel frame supporting a concrete shell roof, covered by the all-important camouflaging grass. It’s huge, and very functional, but also rather elegant, and from a distance it blends into its surroundings so that it seems hardly there at all. Whenever I pass by the door still seems to be closed.

* * *

Looking back at this post, I'm struck by the many different reasons I might have found, even then, to be interested in places like this. Back in c. 1960, World War II was still recent history – it was usually referred to, without ambiguity, as 'the war', reruns of not-so-old war films appeared very often on TV, and war themes loomed large in playground games and parental memories alike. The first airfields I saw, in Lincolnshire, had played a key part in that war, and looking at them, even from the wrong side of the perimeter fence, gave me an insight into this history.

I was also learning about the differences between places. The open spaces and distinctive buildings of airfields, so different from the small garden and tiny interiors of my childhood home, provided a dramatic demonstration of just how varied places could be – in the quality of their architecture, their use, their atmosphere, their sense of space. If this seems obvious, it's worth remembering the shock of the different that a five-year-old child, who'd not travelled very much, must have experienced. The fascination of what 's different, and local, and distinctive, has been holding my attention ever since.

* * *

Hangar: not a self-explanatory word. Were there lightweight, World War I biplanes hanging up in there? I wondered. No, hangar’s etymology is far from certain, according to the OED, but comes from French (and probably also Germanic) words meaning shelter. Our hamlet has the same roots. The dictionary’s first example comes from Thackeray’s Henry Esmond and has nothing to do with aircraft at all: ‘Mademoiselle, may we take your coach to town? I saw it in the hangar.'

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