Yardley Chase was not the place !

In the early summer of 1979 life in Denton was going along much as usual. The music charts were being topped by Blondie with ‘Sunday Girl’ and people were just beginning to take in the fact that Margaret Thatcher had become the first British woman Prime Minister early in May.


The forecast for the forth-coming Whitsun weekend holiday was predictably for cool, windy and wet weather.


However things were about to change dramatically.


 It started with a tiny report in the Chronicle and Echo of Friday, May 18th, squeezed in between the cricket scores

and Edward Heath rejecting Mrs Thatcher’s offers of jobs as some consolation for failing to be Party leader when the Tories won the election.


Small it may have been but its contents were dynamite. Out of the blue Yardley Chase had been named by a Government Study Group as one of six potential sites for a Third London airport to supplement Heathrow and Gatwick.


 Instantly the communities around Yardley Chase, including Denton, sprang into action and the phone lines within, and between the local villages must have been red hot to the extent that by the very next day, Saturday 19th May, the story was now front page headline news.


Parish Councils immediately liaised with each other, groups were formed and meetings hastily arranged.


Quickest off the mark were Hackleton where only four days later, on Wednesday 23rd May, no fewer than 275 people from the village and around crammed into the school assembly hall and discussed how best they could fight against the prospect of their homes being effectively made uninhabitable should the 3rd London Airport come to the Yardley Chase.   It was agreed that some sort of joint protest organisation was needed to represent all potentially affected areas.


The proposal would mean an area of around 4.4 miles by 1.9 miles would be needed for the airport itself – in excess of 5,000 acres. However the effects would be felt well outside this area and some experts reckoned that anywhere from Quinton to Olney (West to East) and Castlethorpe to Wollaston (South to North) would suffer massive intrusion of noise and disruption from the necessary infrastructure.


Two days later on Friday 25th May, it was the turn of Yardley Hastings to maintain the frantic momentum. Ironically the situation here was complicated by the fact that the parish council was ‘in limbo’ as local elections were in process of taking place to put a new one in place. However a local potter, Peter Yates, made arrangements to get a meeting held immediately.


On the day people from all around the district flocked to the memorial hall which was soon absolutely full. Late-comers had to stand outside the open windows to hear what was said and in total there we nearly 400 people present.


 The Marquess of Northampton chaired the meeting from a tiny stage surrounded by maps showing the affected area should the airport come to Yardley Chase. An action committee was formed and Peter Yates was elected chairman.

Much of the land that would be needed was owned by The Compton Estate and there had been murmurings from a few sources that some ‘agreement’ had been provisionally made between the Estate and the Government.


More fuel was added to this fire because, coincidentally, the Marquess and his family had decided a short time before that they would move from Castle Ashby to another of the family’s houses at Compton Wynyates in Warwickshire.


However the Marquess (who was aged only 33 at the time) categorically refuted such suggestions which he said had been hurtful and upsetting to the family.


He reminded the meeting that Castle Ashby Estate had owned the land, including Yardley Chase, since the 1500’s and had a good record of its husbandry and had preserved its rural atmosphere.


He suggested a fighting fund be set up and started it off by promising an immediate personal contribution of £1,000 and a further £279 was raised from those attending the meeting. Furthermore Lord Northampton offered the free use of an estate cottage in the village as a headquarters for the newly formed committee.


The issue had meanwhile become national, as well as local, news and the Sunday Telegraph ran a report on 20th May which included a quotation from Rev James Davies, vicar of Yardley Hastings and Denton, who had eloquently commented -


 ‘Only Philistines would contemplate this and only Visigoths would allow the destruction of Yardley Chase. I feel that any Goliath who contemplated this would find a host of Davids in the villages around awaiting him’.


It was important to get political representatives on side. The MP for the Daventry constituency (which covered most of the potentially affected area) was Reg Prentice. A few weeks before he had been appointed Minister for the Disabled by the newly elected Thatcher Government and already had a high profile as in 1977 he had been the most senior member ever to leave the Labour Party when he defected to the Conservatives.


From the start he sought to make his position clear as on the day after the initial announcement he asserted:


‘There will be no airport here – or anywhere – as far as I am concerned.

I am totally against it and I would take a very critical view of any proposed airport in Northamptonshire.’


However only a week later he was being accused of backtracking, as although he had sent a message of support to the Yardley Hastings meeting, he said he was unable to take part in constituency protests because of his Ministerial position within the Government. He said: ‘I felt entitled to make my position of opposition clear to constituents at the outset, but now there is nothing I can do’. This brought a storm of adverse reaction from the local party faithful in particular but simply strengthened their resolve to fight even harder.


Meanwhile at a more local level the politicians were totally committed. County Councillor for the area, Gordon Gee, was already a seasoned anti-expansion campaigner having been on record over the previous 15 years as against major planning developments in the area.

He said: ‘I didn’t even know Yardley Hastings was being considered. I’m staggered. It’s a bit of a bombshell. It’s come completely out of the blue.

I don’t know where they could put it. If this is true then I’m going to have a few sleepless nights over it’


And Northamptonshire County Council Chairman John Poole threw the whole county’s weight behind the opposition saying ‘I would not sit down and accept this, and I am sure the Council will not. I am horrified that Yardley Hastings has been included in the six.’


Similar support for the protest organisation came from non-political groups.  The Northamptonshire Naturalists Trust was concerned to preserve Yardley Chase which they labelled as ‘a relic of one of the old Royal Forests and is a potential site of special scientific interest’ while the Deputy County Planning Officer, Kevin O’Shaughnessy, commented ‘We have had as much growth in Northamptonshire as we can, or would wish to, and we don’t want to encourage more growth in the future’


The Local Council for the Protection of Rural England called the idea ‘a sick joke’ and potentially ‘a total and wanton destruction of the Northamptonshire countryside’ and the Country Landowners Association was equally strong in its support of the protest movement.


Whilst such widespread local support was gratifying it was unlikely on it’s own that it would influence the decision-makers. There was concern that Yardley Chase could be a ‘soft option’ as a large part of the vast acreage that would need to be compulsorily purchased was in the hands of one owner – the Castle Ashby Estate. This could be easier to acquire than having to buy up many smaller parcels of land as at other sites under consideration.


However the land was on a 999 year lease to the Forestry Commission. Furthermore the area was known to be subject to frequent winter fog – not ideal for operating an airport.


Another factor in favour of the resistance group was the proximity of the radio communications headquarters at Hanslope Park which meant the Foreign Office were potentially another extremely high profile supporter of the cause to resist using Yardley Chase as the favoured option.


 Similarly, at this time, the United States had part of its nuclear strike force based relatively close by at Upper Heyford and their swing-wing F-111 aircraft used a route directly over Yardley Chase on their way to NATO patrols. So perhaps President Jimmy Carter would have been willing to wear one of the ‘No airport at Yardley Chase’ badges if he had been given the chance!


The influence of people in high places behind the scenes cannot be underestimated and was probably an essential corollary to the vocal and direct protests that took place at a local level.


There was concern when a trade building journal called ‘ Construction News’ printed an article arguing that, of the short listed sites, Yardley Chase had the best credentials. One aspect of its reasoning was that Northamptonshire’s central position in the country was in its favour. However elsewhere this was cited as a distinct disadvantage as it meant much more air traffic would be passing over land than would be the case with a site nearer the coast.


The cut and thrust of argument took place in the press and the letters pages of the Chronicle and Echo in particular were filled with letters on the subject. The vast majority were strongly against the airport being sited at Yardley Chase.


One correspondent from Northampton however took the opposite view and suggested the coming of the airport would only involve disruption of ‘a few fields’ and leave a ‘few villages upset’. This prompted an immediate and even stronger rebuttal of this opinion in letters from many writers in the following days.


One letter came from the vicar of Yardley Hastings and Denton, the Rev James Davies, who was better qualified than most to comment as he had spent 28 years as a padre in the RAF before coming to Northamptonshire. He wrote ‘ Yardley Chase has a mediaeval forest which would disappear completely and this together with the ravages of Dutch Elm disease would be catastrophic for this county’ ….. ‘we in the ‘few villages’ and ‘few fields’ are fighting to conserve a way of life for all to enjoy’. Finally he quoted from the scriptures in the form of the words of the prophet Ezekiel ‘Then those who dwell in the cities will not need to cut down the forests.’


 On the ground anti-airport signs adorned the road verges and farmers painted anti-airport slogans in huge letters on barns visible from the road. YARDLEY CHASE IS NOT THE PLACE and NO AIRPORT AT YARDLEY CHASE appeared on badges and banners.


The protest continued unabated for several months and everyone held their breath as it was not known when some sort of decision would be announced. It was eventually on 17th December 1979, shortly before the Parliamentary Christmas recess, on 17th that Mr John Nott, Secretary of State for Trade sought permission from the Speaker to make a statement about airports policy.


Whilst the statement ran to many hundreds of words the essence was summed up in one paragraph :


‘The Government have decided not to build a major new airport of the kind considered by the Roskill Commission report in 1971; nor do they intend to resurrect the Maplin project, even in a revised form. Instead the Government’s policy is, first, to encourage the fullest use of regional airports and, secondly, to provide additional airport capacity, as the traffic develops, based on the existing airports in the South-East, particularly Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted.


So it was over, and Yardley Chase was safe from destruction. In fact there was speculation that the extent of public protest from all the short listed sites had so taken the Government by surprise they backed off the whole idea and eventually it was the already established Stansted that became the third London airport.


Other, more cynical, commentators maintained the hidden agenda was that it was always going to be Stansted and the whole exercise of naming other potential sites was something of a smoke screen to give the impression that due consideration had been given to all options.


Either way – Denton and the other villages didn’t care and were just thankful that the end result was that they could enjoy the Christmas of 1979 without the threat still hanging over their heads - literally!