Celebrating Wiltshire Wildlife: 50 years of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust
on Tuesday, 18 December 2012. Posted in Wiltshire Places
This year the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust is celebrating its 50th anniversary. To highlight the trust’s valuable work in the county, I thought I’d take a look at the history behind one of Wiltshire’s many tranquil reserves, Blakehill Farm.
Blakehill straddles two parishes, that of Cricklade and Purton. The area of Blakehill Farm was called Blake Hill on a map of 1774; ironic as its later use required a flat area!
The OS map below is dated 1885 and gives an idea of land use at this time, which understandably was agricultural. Lying just north west of the airfield is a late medieval moated site and there is a nearby late medieval settlement at Whitehall Farm. You can view the extent of the archaeological features on the site on Wiltshire and Swindon's Historic Environment Record.
OS Map 1:2,500, 1885 Ref: 10/1
The land at Blakehill became one of many temporary airfields constructed during WWII; 58a belonging to Blakehill Farm in Purton and Whitehall Farm in Cricklade were acquired by the Air Ministry in 1943. The airfield became operational in 1944. Those working at the station soon numbered about twice the population of Cricklade. It must have turned a sleepy rural town into a bustling, busy area.
Plan of the proposed site at Blakehill Farm by the Air Ministry, scale 6” to 1 mile, dated 23.8.1944
On 6th June 1944 paratroopers set off on Operation Tonga. More operations followed, including a return flight carrying on Friday 13th June, the first to carry wounded back to Britain by air. Onboard were the WAAF’s pioneering ‘Flying Nightingales’, caring for the wounded who were being brought back from the battle zone, and working in very challenging conditions.
Casualties and crew including one of the Flying Nightingales, in a Dakota aircraft of 233 Squadron, RAF Blakehill Farm, 1944
Original held at Cricklade Museum
Our ref: P32733
In the immediate post-war period the nissen huts were reconditioned and used to accommodate the workers and families of Vickers-Armstrong employees due to a severe housing shortage. During the 1960s and 70s the site was used as an outstation by GCHQ Cheltenham, listening in during the Cold War period. A cold war bunker has been discovered on the site, thought to have been created to house top Government Officials in the advent of a nuclear attack. Industrial archaeologist and historian Bob Clarke is currently looking at the site as part of his research into Cold War home front defences in the South West.
O.S. Map, 1:10,560, showing the airfield in 1960
The site was partially cleared in the 1970s and the runways used as hardcore to build the M4 motorway. The airfield was purchased by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust in 2000. It has become one of the largest grassland restoration projects, helping to restore the grassland and wildflower meadows. Roe deer and brown hare are to be found here, along with the heath spotted-orchid and oxeye daisy. Skylarks can be heard in the skies above, which are also home to kestrels, wheatear, winchat and stonechat.
The Wiltshire Wildlife Trust call it “a slice of living history, not just in terms of the role it played during war, but also because it offers us a rare insight into something that was once an everyday part of the farmed landscape”.
Veterans of No. 437 (T) Sqdn, Royal Canadian Air Force returned to the airfield in 1994 and attended the dedication of a memorial cairn which reads:
When you pause to see the time of day remember the Canadians
Who flew from this airfield brave and courageous, some never
Returned, others with lifetime memories.
Dedicated by the members of 436 (T) Husky Squadron with the
Gracious help of the people of Cricklade on 25th September 1994.
No 437 Squadron Royal Canadian Airforce R.A.F Blakehill Farm
14th Sept 1944 – 7th May 1945
A new memorial was erected beside the cairn in 2004 to include the ground staff and air ambulance nurses.
Local Studies Assistant
Available to view in our Local Studies Library:
‘The Place-Names of Wiltshire’ by J.E.B. Glover et. al. (1939), Ref: AAA.917
‘The Victoria County History of the Counties of England; A History of Wiltshire Volume XVIII’ by Virginia Bainbridge (ed.), Ref: AAA.940
‘Cricklade Historical Society – A Short History of RAF Blakehill Farm’ by Tom Ramsden-Binks, Ref: CRI.352
‘Wiltshire Airfields in the Second World War’ by David Berryman (2002), Ref: AAA.352
‘Wings over Wiltshire’ by Rod Priddle (2003), Ref: AAA.354
‘Blakehill-direct link to a bygone era’ by John Rattray, Wiltshire Wildlife Magazine, Summer 2012, p.10