Trail 4 – Kent (Part 1)

If Lincoln is known as ‘Bomber Country’ then Kent must be ‘Fighter Country’. During the second World War there were numerous fighter stations here, prepared ready to defend London and the South East, all forming part of 11 Group.

Kent is Synonymous with the Battle of Britain. The summer and Autumn of 1940 saw extensive action in the skies over Kent and many an aircrew met their fate in the fields of southern England. Airfields such as Biggin Hill, Manston and Hawkinge were at the forefront of the war. Like so many of their counterparts, many of these have now gone and so we endeavour to find the remaining traces of their existence that were home to the gallant ‘few’.

This tour, visits two airfields and a museum. The first, the former RAF Biggin Hill, is still an active and thriving airfield. No longer in the hands of the military, it is now a ‘international airport’ with commercial, business and pleasure flights frequenting the runways. Extensive development has taken over a large part of the airfield, although there are remnants of the original to be seen.

RAF Biggin Hill.

Initially as you arrive at Biggin Hill, you are greeted with the new more commercial part of the airfield. Here are the business and customer blocks along with the control tower. Further along, next to the main road through Biggin Hill and along one side of the airfield, are some of the original buildings and office blocks. Many have been utilised by the Metropolitan Police, but some have been cordoned off and remain ‘as they were’ in those dark days. Even the ‘Royal Air Force Biggin Hill’ sign is still there, serving as a reminder of its past use; these are now believed to be used by 2427 Squadron of the Air Training Corps.

Biggin Hill

The Hurricane guardian outside the Chapel of Remembrance, Biggin Hill.

Continue a little further and you have the Airfield Chapel. Here stand, as two guardians, a replica Spitfire and Hurricane aloft two poles. This building replaced the original one which burnt down and the two replicas replacing two original aircraft now gone from here. There are other buildings around the site, used for different purposes and information about them is freely available elsewhere.

Shoreham Aviation Museum.

On leaving Biggin Hill, wind your way back to the M25, and into the Garden of England. Just a few miles, into the Darent Valley, only 5 miles or so from Biggin Hill, is the beautiful village of Shoreham. A typical Kent chocolate box, village surrounded by super walks and fantastic scenery; it hides a little museum sitting at the back of a small tea room. Founded in 1978, the tea room is filled with local art work, depicting scenes from the time. An airfield bell and stained glass windows also tell of links to the Battle. Serving teas and refreshments (have the bacon doorstep!) it’s a delightful place to sit before, or after, heading into the museum. Inside the museum is an enormous collection of crashed aircraft parts, all telling their own stories. This is not just a collection of bits and pieces though, each tells a story linked with pictures of the pilots who flew the stricken aircraft, both British and German. Several aircraft engines lay thoroughly cleaned and superbly displayed along with information sheets, plaques and stories that add a very personal touch to each and every one. Inside the small shop, is the cockpit of a Junkers 88 shot down and now in the process of restoration. It’s two Junkers Jumo engines displayed inside and details of digs and with photo’s adorn the walls. The museum extends its influence, by aiming to erect a memorial to each and every pilot who fell within 10 miles of the museum, and many can be found through the museum leaflet. Like many smaller museums, it does not permit the use of photography, but it is a super little museum, run by dedicated people, located in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.

After leaving Shroreham, return to the M25 and head south toward Maidstone, here we find RAF West Malling.

RAF West Malling.

Leave the motorway and follow signs for RAF West Malling and in particular the ‘Council Offices’. On entering the site, you can see evidence of the Fighter Station, RAF West Malling. To your right are the original buildings, now used by the  local Council. The names of those were served here (Peter Townsend, John Cunningham and Bob Braham) are immortalised in roads and some of the buildings, in particular Guy Gibson, ‘Gibson Road’ and ‘Gibson House’.

Officer's Quarters now called 'The Gibson Building'.

The former Officer’s Quarters now called ‘The Gibson Building’ and used by the Council as offices.

To the left are the more modern ‘industrial’ units. Proceed along Gibson Road towards the centre of the new housing development, and you come across a bronze statue of an airman running to his aircraft. Around him stand four marble panels, with different inscriptions including; the insignia of both RAF West Malling and the RAF. Also, the first and last aircraft to be stationed here, a Lysander and Gloster Javelin. A moving centre piece, opened on 9th June 2002. Just a short distance away is another reminder of the history, the ‘Spitfire’ Public house, offering Shepherd Neames ales. Although this is possibly more to do with the ‘product’ rather than the history! Navigating your way round the myriad of roundabouts and new roads, you will see, in amongst the houses and supermarkets, the original control tower (a listed building) that now been renovated. Standing surrounded by houses, it is a coffee shop, engulfed by modern buildings and overshadowed by the supermarket, how much renovation can preserve its historical importance? Sitting looking at the building, you wonder how many of the residents of this new ‘town’ will be aware of its original importance and use?

There are a wide range of places worth visiting in this part of the world. Manston and its Spitfire Museum, Hawkinge museum, Lashenden (Headcorn) to name a few (Trail 18), but West Malling and Biggin Hill seem to be two ends of the spectrum in terms of flying. One is thriving and ‘active’ whilst the other is given an almost cursory glance, yet both, very deserving, were at the front in Britain’s bid to stop the Nazi Tyranny during the Second World War.

RAF West Malling Control Tower under refurbishment

RAF West Malling Control Tower whislt under refurbishment.

I revisited West Malling in May 2015 to see what had become of the Control Tower. The redevelopments are now finished and there was a rather nice surprise for me which can be read about  here.


Information on Biggin Hill Airport can be found through their website.

Update – Manston airport closed sadly mid 2014. An ongoing battle continues to reinstate the airport but its future looks sealed for now. More housing and a great loss of the once welcoming site for inbound bombers and fighters damaged and limping home.

37 thoughts on “Trail 4 – Kent (Part 1)

  1. The White Hart Inn, Brasted , used to be one of the pubs used by Battle of Britain pilots from Biggin and used to have a blackboard on the wall with the pilots’ signatures on it. I saw it once – by that time, the early ’80s, it had glass over it to protect the signatures. I must say that the locals were an unfriendly lot, which spoiled things somewhat. I think the blackboard is now in Shoreham Aircraft Museum? There’s a new museum, recently opened, at Biggin too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, you really have been to The White Hart! I found them exactly the same when I visited a few years ago. I arrived on a motorcycle and was made to feel about as welcome as a Rattlesnake in a Lucky Dip! The Landlord refused to serve me as “we don’t want your lot in here”. When I went back some time later in my car, he almost smiled as he asked me what I wanted. I told him that as he had previously refused my custom when I was on two wheels, he certainly was not going to get it now. I left and never went back.
      The blackboard was what I had originally gone there for. It is indeed in Shoreham Aircraft Museum and I am very pleased to be able to tell you that they don’t mind HOW you get there!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You might have guessed that the “anonymous” comment on this page was in fact me! I sent it via my mobile phone and forgot to fill out the “who it was from” fields! Hate modern technology sometimes!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I spent a summer at West Malling in the early 80s, learning to glide with the Aur Cadets. Some nights I’d me the only one on site, in the gliding school that was housed in a couple of old Nissan huts on a remote part of the airfield. Let me tell you, back then when the site was largely intact, it was a very atmospheric place. I don’t believe in ghosts, but there was many a time that the hair on the back of my neck would stand up!!

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  4. Yes, I have to say that they were rather a “Mickey Mouse” outfit! They were part of the Hunting Gate Group, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they were just “acquired” by them along the way as some kind of an indulgence for somebody high up. The attitude at the higher echelons was cavalier to say the least!

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  5. Our test pilot was (thankfully!) pretty good at his job, though he was nobody’s Ray Hannah! His favourite trick was to come in Port Wing low so the Port undercart leg hit the tarmac first, then “bounce” it over to Starboard, lifting the Port leg off the runway, then bumping it back down hard before opening the engines up to climb away again! A jarring experience to say the least!

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  6. I used to work for MetAir aircraft at West Malling in the final year of operations before it was demolished to make way for Kings Hill. My office was on the side of the hangar that backed onto the Control Tower and I will always remember seeing the BBMF arrive on the Friday before the last ever WARBIRDS display there. seeing the full underside of the Hurricane as it banked steeply to Port, flying BETWEEN the hangar and the Tower before landing! A VERY “unconventional” circuit to say the least!

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      • Indeed! I have other memories from working there too. Such as the guided tour of the old wartime operations room before they demolished it. They had to call the Army in to demolish the old E-Pens as they simply refused to yield to the contractors pneumatic drills! Then there were the frequent power cuts caused by the contractors drilling through previous, un-mapped supply mains! The station’s power installations were of course subjected to MANY German bombs during the war and the repairs back then would have to have been completed VERY quickly. The result of this was that absolutely nobody had an accurate diagram of the station’s electrics! As long as they worked, we didn’t care, but when they didn’t, it could be a nightmare for the repairers.

        My actual job was Reprographics Manager, but a distinct “perk” was being allowed to go up on test flights. MetAir used to fit out the Saab 340 TurboProp airliners for different airlines and the test flights always took place on a friday. My “job” (I wouldn’t call it work!) on such a flight consisted of checking to see which locker doors or other passenger bay fittings failed the flight’s rough handling programme.

        We would take off, go into a circuit, then the pilot would literally hit the runway (wheels down, of course!) as hard as he dare, then climb straight off again to about 5,000feet whist we checked everything. Then it was out across the Channel to French airspace, a circuit at Le Touquet (sometimes lunch too!) then back to West Malling to sign the aircraft off. Talk about an easy working day! And I got paid for it, too!

        The job came to an end in 1991, when the station finally closed. MetAir moved to Biggin Hill but as I lived in Maidstone and their wages were not spectacular; I didn’t transfer with them. Fun while it lasted though!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Now that’s a job I’d happily do! Did the pilot ever misjudge his landings? That would be one big error of judgement!

        I’ll bet there were a few ‘interesting’ articles found whilst digging the old place up, how I’d like to have been there too – as sad of course, as it would be.

        I’ll bet when the phone call came through to the electricity board their hears sank! Not Malling again!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I bet they did go into a state of despair! We could be shut down for two days sometimes whilst they tried to sort it! I believe MetAir finally ceased trading in the late 90’s or 2000. I wasn’t surprised, as they had an awful habit of “robbing Peter to pay Paul”! MANY was the time I would order supplies for the Print Room, only to be told that the last bill hadn’t been paid and until it was, no further supplies! ANOTHER reason for a shutdown!

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  7. I earned my glider pilots licence as an Air Cadet at West Malling as a teenager in the early 1980s. The airfield was virtually intact in its operational state back then, although largely derelict. I spent one memorable night on my own in the old gliding school building, it was atmospheric beyond belief. It felt there were ghosts in every shadow and corner!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi John. You’re a braver man than me! Many of these places are supposedly haunted, I guess that comes with the territory of old buildings and derelict places. Hope you’ve managed to get back and see it recently. If you have any photos we’d love to see them.

      Liked by 1 person

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