Around two years ago, I visited West Malling airfield in Kent to see what was left of this once historic place. Surprisingly, quite a bit did still survive albeit hidden amongst new buildings and office blocks.
Many of the ‘H’ blocks were left as was the Officer’s quarters and the control tower. The tower was shrouded in scaffolding and well hidden in the depths of a housing estate.
This May, I was in the area once more and decided to pop in and see what had become of the tower. Was it an office block, a museum dedicated to the men and women who were stationed here, or a modern cafe with retro decor? It was actually a bit of all of them.
Let me explain. The ground floor is partly a Costa Coffee shop with its ‘modern’ interior, but the original walls and windows are still used. A 1940s building, they have decorated the walls with photographs taken during West Malling’s operational time. I have to admit it is rather tasteful for a coffee bar, and they have maintained the feel quite well.
Next door, is a property development company, who occupy both the ground and upper floors. The ground floor entrance is a small reception in which hangs a number of large photographs, again taken from West Malling’s operational time. There are no captions to the photographs but as a visitor, you can freely browse them, or at least I did and the lady behind the reception desk didn’t seem to mind.
There still remains a fair amount of scaffolding around the top of the tower, but the overall building refurbishment seems to be complete. Even the garden area to the front, adorned with children’s comments from airshows long gone, are tastefully cared for. Whilst they have made every endeavour to preserve this historic building, it is somewhat enclosed by houses and a large supermarket. There is no reference to what role the building played or even why it is here. The whole area has been rebuilt with upmarket restaurants and boutiques and all looks very pleasant. I do wonder how long it will retain this stylish appearance?
When I was there in 2013, I distinctly remember seeing a ‘blue plaque’. These are given to specific buildings to identify them as a site of special historical interest. On visiting this time, I could not find it and as a last resort stopped and asked a suited gentleman if he knew where it was. He introduced himself as the Estates Manager and said there is no blue plaque. Maybe I was mistaken. He then proceeded to tell me that the building I was sat outside of, was the original officer’s mess and that he would show me around if I so wished.
I of course jumped at the chance, and he took me around to the front of the building and showed me a board naming the building as the ‘Gibson building’ in dedication to Guy Gibson.
He unlocked the doors and we went in. The walls here are adorned with photographs, squadron badges and other personal items from those who served at West Malling during its operational time. We then went through further doors into what was the billiard room. The gentleman explained that all the wooden doors, skirting and ceiling decorations are original. He also said that the fireplace was original too and that the lighting whilst not, was the same design and shape as the original lighting.
Then we walked through to what is now the council meeting room, he again explained that the doors and ceiling decorations were originals. He went on to explain that the fireplace here too was original and showed me a photograph of the room as it was before closure, it was indeed virtually identical – all apart from the modern furniture.
We then went to what is now the public reception at the back of the building, passing on the way, the dining room. This has been made much smaller with a false wall but again much of the 1940s architecture is still evident.
“These buildings are now grade 2 listed, and as such cannot be altered without permission” he explained, and he went on to describe how on some of the buildings you can still see traces of the original camouflage paint work.
He went on to tell me the stories behind a number of the photographs on the wall. How they got them from local people and who they were of. I asked him about other remaining buildings on the site, and he explained how all other minor structures and hangers were long since gone; this building, the ‘H’ blocks, and the control tower being the only surviving buildings.
We talked about properties near to the site such as the local pub “The Startled Saint”, which was built to keep the RAF personnel ‘on base’. He also mentioned the initial officer’s quarters, now a private residence, which has on one of the ceilings, all the names of the crew members written with candle smoke. Apparently this property is open once a year for public viewing!
Before we said our goodbyes, he gave me a booklet written in 1989 to commemorate the life of West Malling airfield and the crews and personnel stationed here before its closure.
I did not get his name, but he is the Estates manager for the property, now owned by Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council, and I am truly grateful for the time he took to explain everything to me and for the booklet which I shall read and keep with pleasure.
I can certainly say that whilst the majority of the airfield has gone, what they have done with these last few buildings is both a surprise and real pleasure to see. They have tried to retain the original identity of the airfield through its architecture and road names. A number of small notice boards detail the events that occurred here from its inception until its final closure in the 1990s.
Whilst flying has long since ceased and all major features are gone, West Malling as an airfield has died. However, the centrepiece of this site, the fabulous memorial of the sculpted airman running for his plane, and the tastefully refurbished buildings, not only hold many secrets and tales, but give a hint of the atmosphere of this once historic and important Kent airfield.
West Malling was originally visited in 2013, in Trail 4. I shall be updating the trail shortly as a result of this latest visit.