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RAF Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire

A former WW2 RAF operational training unit base in Oxfordshire, now mostly a gravel pit.

RAF Stanton Harcourt is the site of a former WW2 RAF bomber base a few miles west of Oxford. It was built in the early years of the war and closed shortly after hostilities ceased but during the war it was notable for being the starting point for the raid on the German battleship Scharnhorst and for being Winston Churchill's departure point for the Casablanca conference.

Today the airfield itself has been obliterated by gravel extraction and subsequent landfill operations so you'd be forgiven for not knowing there had ever been an RAF base there but surprisingly a significant amount of the surrounding ex-RAF structures survive and are relatively accessible for the explorer.

This site is unusual in that it could be seen as three sites in one. The RAF structures were the purpose of my visit but the gravel extraction and aggregate processing plant could form the basis for another explore, as could the landfill operation. Either way it's a huge site so it's best to be prepared to cover some distance.

I parked up in Stanton Harcourt village and headed for the industrial estate. The RAF hangars  have been reclad and survive as warehouses and I was hoping there would be more there to interest the explorer. What I found though was the typical mess of a small industrial estate and after a bit of trudging around I moved on because I was running out of time. I'm sure there must be more in the industrial estate but I didn't find it. A quick hike down the road and I joined the bridle path that roughly follows the path of the perimeter track round the south of the site past a fishing lake. Pretty soon you're on the edge of the landfill site surrounded by a moonscape. The photo below shows part of the RAF dispersal pads used as access for the landfill trucks and shows just how much of our trash they're cramming in there - this used to be a level flat airfield.


The edges of the landfill and the water filled gravel pit are rather uninteresting from an explorers point of view unless you just like a walk in the country. The significant stuff starts when you reach the south east corner of the site where the stub end of the north-south runway survives and is the site of the Hanson Aggregates plant. It's sometimes difficult to tell with quarry buildings which parts
 are in use and which aren't, but there are certainly some parts of this site left over from the gravel extraction days that look somewhat decrepit. A quick run round with the camera before I'm on my way looking for more RAF remains.

 Finally something from the RAF days, the end of the runway looking north towards the Hanson plant. Behind where I stood to take the picture below is an area of wetland and more flooded gravel pits, I distubed a most impressive heron as I walked away. Wasn't quick enough to get a picture though.

Moving round the southern edge of the site you reach an area of dense woodland that looks rather promising from the OS map because it has several structures marked in it. Unfortunately guarding this area is a Hanson office with people, cars and CCTV security. Crashing through the woodland looked a little dodgy for a minute but salvation came in the form of a couple of chavs on mini trail bikes up on the footpath who made far more noise than I ever would and meant I could wander at will unseen and unmolested.

It is likely that this corner of the site has not been touched since the RAF moved out as it is covered in extremely dense woodland. Stumbling on WW2 brickwork in the undergrowth, my kind of explore! At a guess it forms the site of a pre war gravel pit that does not descend below the water table because the woodland floor is well below the road level but has no standing water. For the explorer it's a little disappointing, there are quite a few lumps and bumps and the odd bit of brickwork but not the bonanza I was hoping for. Luckily the completely intact ex-RAF rifle range covered by mature trees made up for my disappointment.

The density of the woodland makes photography difficult but this photograph of one end of the range makes clear the scale of the structure. It's completely hidden from ground level by being in a pit and from Flash Earth satellite views by the trees that cover it.

This woodland is the kind of place where you can't see too far so I'm certain that there will be other structures in there I missed because time pressures forced me to move on. Definitely somewhere I'd like to take another look at.

From the woodland the path took me down the Hanson access road to the public road that runs up the east side of the site. By the gate is this building, looks ex-RAF but its original purpose is not obvious. 

 The road leads back to Stanton Harcourt village, alongside reclaimed landfill covering the eastern side of the airfield. Another handy public footpath led me back onto the site towards the technical area, past a house lucky enough to have their own air raid shelter in the garden.

Walking across reclaimed landfill is weird, but ultimately boring. It's covered in vents spewing out the rotting gaseous emissions of thousands of tons of West Oxfordshire's jetsam so it smells a bit iffy. After a bit of getting lost among confusing fences I arrived at the airfield side of the technical site.

The technical site is a fantastic survival alongside the devastation of the gravel pit and landfill. It's been used since the war in its entirety as a working farm and is not only complete, but in pretty good condition. Here though I hit a bit of a problem. I don't mind wandering round most of the unsecured abandoned spaces I visit because ultimately nobody gives a monkeys so long as you don't do anything dodgy. But here I decided not to leave the footpath because I come from a small community just like Stanton Harcourt and I know how much trouble farmers can have with intruders. A farm's not like a derelict factory owned by a faceless and evil property developer, it's someone's livelihood and while I was extremely tempted by this site and would probably have got away with it I restricted myself to taking photographs from the footpath and I'd suggest as a courtesy that other explorers do the same. Crazy? Probably, from a UE perspective. But at least I didn't cause any hassles and since the public right of way bisects the area I still had plenty of chance to take pictures. On the subject of pictures, that's an RAF petrol pump in the middle of the shot above.

Moving down the path it becomes the main access road from the RAF days with buildings either side. Here's another view of the technical site.

Further down the road is a field formerly occupied by an RAF domestic site, and on the other side, the farmyard with this novel take on a tractor shed.

The domestic site is visible as building outlines on Flash Earth satellite photographs but all that remains on the surface are overgrown blast shelters and a standard RAF air raid shelter.

Finally, by the entrance from the road is the RAF guardhouse. In pretty good nick, I think it may be used by the farmer as an office.

I came to Stanton Harcourt unsure how much there would be worth seeing. Though the gravel pit and landfill have left the most obliterated of all the local RAF bases it's surprising in that what has survived is in better condition than corresponding structures on other sites and the Hanson structures were an added bonus. I left the site happy, and with a few ideas for things to look at next time I'm in the area.

Access: easy enough, the surviving RAF structures are linked by the local network of public rights of way.

Hazard level: Pretty low. Active landfill sites are dangerous places if you venture that close, but otherwise  you need only keep an eye out for Hanson employees at the southern end and suspicious villagers at the northern end.

Flash Earth location: http://www.flashearth.com/?lat=51.741981&lon=-1.407746&z=15.4&r=0&src=ggl