DPhil Diaries 14: Running in the Footsteps of Vera Brittain and Geoffrey Wellum

In the quiet lockdown evenings this week I've been listening to the audiobook First Light, a memoir of Geoffrey Wellum's life as an RAF fighter pilot in the Second World War. Prior to his service in the Battle of Britain, he completed much of his advance training at Kidlington, just north of Oxford, and so for my Sunday long run, I decided to go and explore the area Wellum would have known. 

I recently came back to Oxford after an extended Christmas break at my parents' where I've just embarked on another "virtual" term. The city centre streets are eerily quiet. The other day, on a different run, I ran down High Street about 6pm. It's a road I used to walk regularly, heading off to meet friends for our usual pub quiz, weaving between the people waiting for buses on the gridlocked road. But now, it's mostly empty, save for Deliveroo riders and fellow joggers.

Oxford no longer quite feels like the city it did at the start of last year, devoid of its undergrads and without the ease of seeing friends. Oddly, this was a theme I also picked up on in some of my reading this week. For a class I'm teaching this term I've been reading Vera Brittain's Chronicles of Youth (the original diary form of Testament of Youth). In it, she talks of the oddness she felt in Oxford after the outbreak of the First World War, of 'dreamy sadness' as she tried to enjoy the city while conscious of everything that was missing and wrong.

It feels wrong to compare the circumstances of the pandemic to those of war (despite how many times people try to ignite a "Blitz spirit"), yet there are nonetheless some resonances, with the restrictions on normal life that have become necessary. I was contemplating all of this on my run up to Kidlington; of lives punctuated by international events, of circumstantial shifts in one's life. 

Both Brittain and Wellum were several younger than I am now when they confronted war - a frightening thought - both in their initial post-school freedoms when conflict intervened. I've been ruminating on their stories a lot, of how their lives went in a flash from the protection of childhood to the harshest frontiers of adulthood. To me, as also I'm sure many others, that transition seems unthinkable, but then, just as with those who are at the forefront of tackling Covid, you know when you are confronted with an unavoidable challenge, you find the strength to overcome it.

Anyway, back to Kidlington. What was to Wellum RAF Kidlington is now the London-Oxford Airport and is still operational as an airfield. For me it's quite an easy run to get up there, out of Oxford on the canal path and then onto the Shakespeare Way through the Hall Farm estate and wood to just below Blenheim Palace. There's then a footpath around the north end of the airport.

The airfield was first established in 1935 and used by the military from 1938. With the outbreak of the Second World War a year later, it became used by the RAF for flight training. Initially, No. 6 Flying Training School (SFTS) was based there as a subsidiary of their base at Little Rissington, which is just over the border in Gloucestershire. It was to 6SFTS that Wellum attended, learning to fly Harvard planes. No 15 SFTS then succeeded it doing much similar work, but also using Oxford aeroplanes. Many trainee pilots, like Alec Waldron who later recorded his memories for the Imperial War Museum's audio archive, attended Kidlington for a 6 week course, before going on to operation flying. 

RAF Kidlington. The runway was off to the left. (Old-maps.co.uk)

Despite the bombing that occasionally affected Oxfordshire, to the young pilots the realities of war must have felt a long way away from sleepy Kidlington. To the local residents, however, the war would have made the area anything but sleepy. Up to 100 aeroplanes were in use at the base at a time, with 1430 RAF men and 468 WAAF women being accommodated for. They had barrack huts built to the east of the aerodrome on the area that is now the Thames Water plant and an industrial estate.

The airfield is smoother than anything surrounding it, but isn't quite flat - the runway has been built up somewhat to make it level. All around are small hills, nothing particularly of note, but in combination with the woods, particularly those in Blenheim Park, this made for a slight problem to some of the trainee pilots. Alex Cassie in an IWM recording talked of how they would take off over the woods of Blenheim Palace and had to make sure they gained enough height soon enough to clear the trees.

Today it was difficult to imagine the hive of activity Wellum would have witnessed 80 years ago. I saw just a few small planes when I was running the perimeter, and was more concerned not to inadvertently end up on the wrong side of the gates that presented many threatening warning signs. It was a cold morning and, given all the rain we've had recently, there were some pretty deep puddles that I had to break the ice on the surface of in order to run through. 

Just across to the east of the airfield runs the Oxford Canal to which I next headed. I joined it by the side of the Jolly Boatman pub, recorded on the above map as the Britannia. I wondered if the pilots had enjoyed their post-flight pints here, crowding the now up-turned picnic benches in raucous laughter. 

To the north-east beside the Thrupp basin I'd read online that there was a remaining concrete bunker, built most likely in 1940 as one of the airfield defenses. I've run this way a number of times in the last year and never seen it, but it was, quite typically, stood out right in the middle of the field. I ducked through the bits of wire fence and went over to it. Aside from a bit of moss and the usual graffiti (that was weirdly about Clinton), it looked just as it would have when it was constructed. It was, unsurprisingly, flooded so I couldn't go in, not wanting to add to my already cold feet.

I have to admit I'm pretty much at the limit of my historical knowledge here, so I couldn't tell you the specific use of this bunker, or what differentiates it from a First World War counterpart, although its window holes had a two-step indentation which I haven't seen on earlier versions which could likely point towards a greater understanding of fortification. But I don't really know and I'm sure there's far better qualified people to explain it than me.

From here I then ran back towards Oxford down the canal path. I get really bored if I spend too much time running on the canal, but at this point almost 20km into my run, I was just grateful for a route home that wasn't too muddy. I hunted out another pillbox on the far side of the canal near bridge 225 (which is one of the many removed bridges on this stretch) but it was behind a hedge so I couldn't get too good a look at it. 

Having done a fair bit of googling about aerodromes and wartime defence structures this week there appears to be quite a few interesting places near Oxford to investigate, so I'll probably get to those over the next few months. In both world wars the area in and around the Cotswolds was used for a lot of flying, particularly training, so I'd like to learn more about that. Previously, I wrote about the Australian flying training at Leighterton and I've got another blog coming soon about the RFC training on Port Meadow.

But anyway, there's a rambling run through what's been on my mind this week. I think in our present day it's very easy to think we live in a different world from those who preceded us, so when I read about people like Geoffrey Wellum and Vera Brittain and recognise the places they experienced, I always find this real connection and opportunity for reflection. Oxford as a city can sometimes feel heavy with its own history, yet I love peeling back the layers and seeing how others who came before me experienced these wonderful places we share.



(I know this isn't a formal article, but these resources I found really useful in putting this week's blog post together, so I wanted to share)

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