Home Arts Britain’s wartime control tower to become holiday home after £3.1million restoration

Britain’s wartime control tower to become holiday home after £3.1million restoration

by godlove4241
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A very polite estate agent might describe the new Landmark Trust property as “a project”. They might say it “needs a cosmetic update”. But it is well, well beyond.

The former RAF control tower will be open to visitors in 2025 after a planned investment of £3.1 million. A fundraising campaign will be launched in July with restoration work expected in early 2024. But it may come as a surprise to Landmark regulars, as it promises to be a far cry from the image of the typical trust offering. It’s not some pleasantly eccentric heritage building – a thatched-roof castle, a Greek temple pigsty or a gatehouse in the shape of a giant pineapple – beautifully restored and recycled as a vacation rental furnished with distressed leather armchairs , paneled doors and well-stocked shelves. At RAF Ibsley, the doors are gaping holes in concrete walls.

The new property, on which the trust has just signed a 99-year lease with Lord Normanton’s Somerley Estate, is ideally located in the heart of the New Forest. It has a beautiful view of the trees surrounding it, a curving lake with jumping fish and gliding swans, and huge open skies that are crucial to understanding its history. It also has multiple floors, a selection of partial walls, and fragments of a Critall window frame hanging from a hole in the wall. But even Landmark’s buildings team – normally heroically optimistic – describes RAF Ibsley’s watch office as “now dilapidated”.

The abandoned concrete building had been spectacularly vandalized and covered in graffiti.

© John Miller

The building, as far as trust historian Caroline Stanford can determine, is unique. This is an RAF ‘Type 518/40’ guard office; the Americans who later occupied the airfield called them control towers. One of 29 originally built, it is the only survivor with a concrete balcony; the wooden balconies of the handful of other examples have long since rotted away.

RAF Ibsley was built in 1941, at the height of the Second World War; first as a log cabin, then, as the air war intensified, as a full-scale airfield, control center and weather office. It was built at full speed in precast concrete and was still unfinished when it opened. It was spotted and bombed by the Germans – with no casualties – within a month. Local youths were then recruited to apply thousands of gallons of paint to camouflage the three runways; camouflage may have helped protect the building from attack, but Stanford notes that it did not help fatigued pilots return to low light.

The base was then handed over to the United States Air Force, which had to hastily modernize the airfield. It had only basic communications equipment, with plane take-off orders communicated by colored flares and airstrip instructions signaled by large numbers displayed on the roof. News of the planes’ return was relayed in simple codes from a station higher up on the moors, where an adopted ginger cat, who liked to sleep on the receiver, invariably heard the distant engines first and gave an earlier warning. It was home to 19 different RAF squadrons over the next three years. The film First of the few, starring David Niven and Leslie Howard, a patriotic morale booster that won at the box office, was filmed there in 1941 while still on active duty. “It all sounds very daddy’s armybut it was deadly serious,” Stanford says.

Spectacularly vandalized

After a brief period when the airfield became a motor racing circuit with the guard office as a clubhouse, the surrounding gravel pits – quarried after the war – were filled with water, making it today now a listed wildlife refuge. Meanwhile, the abandoned concrete building was spectacularly vandalized and covered in graffiti. The scars of many parties and barbecues remain, the windows and doors are long gone and pieces of the ceiling crumbled long ago after rain corroded the metal reinforcing the concrete. The original flat, brushy landscape is unrecognizable now that most of the site is underwater.

RAF Ibsley Surveillance Office

© John Miller

A public call is launched this summer to raise the £3.1million cost of the restoration and conversion, with half the money already pledged. But it’s not just a site of interest for those passionately interested in WWII history. Families from all over the world will have a direct connection to the base.

A public house near Ringwood, a favorite drinking hole, has been autographed by riders from countries including Poland, Australia, France and Argentina. Many drank their last drinks there; on one mission, 23 aircraft took off and two returned home.

The building is planned to become a four bedroom holiday home with a spectacular first floor kitchen and dining area with 180 degree views into the former control room. Open days will be organized for the general public. Currently, several of the rooms on the ground floor are so perilous that they are accidentally taped shut, and one of them may be permanently out of order because at least one bat – and maybe a colony – moved in. Mark Cox, the surveyor trust manager and project manager, didn’t even flinch when he heard that more big chunks had fallen from the ceiling since his last visit. He is convinced that a high percentage of the original tissue can be preserved. “We’ll clean all the metal, and as long as there’s enough meat left, we can process it,” he says.

“There’s so much history here, from such a pivotal time for this country,” Stanford says firmly. “We have to save this building, just to the point where it is still possible to save it. It will be glorious.

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