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The big American base: the US Air Force at Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire

Part 2 Dissertation 2005
Emily Rowlands
University of Westminster, UK
My study examines the extensive and now disused US Air Force base that sits in the heart of the North Oxfordshire countryside. Having grown up within a few miles of the Upper Heyford airbase, this monument to the Cold War has always fascinated me, and so I jumped at the opportunity to explore it further. The research combined first-hand interviews conducted in England and the USA, as well as numerous site visits and investigations into newspaper articles and available public records. One element in this study that is particularly worthy of note is the accumulated photographs and images that provide such a fascinating record of the history and the richness of the base, and to which I have been able to contribute the latest additions.

The study itself is divided into four chapters, the first of which looks at the concept of the Upper Heyford airbase as a ‘mini-city’ with its own plan and systems of operation. The second looks in greater detail at what it was like for US servicemen to live on or near the base during the Cold War era, and the following chapter then examines the effects that the base had on the surrounding areas of North Oxfordshire in the period up till the mid-1990s. Also described is the tough military architecture on the base, such as the ‘hush-houses’ of the Hardened Aircraft Shelters or the quasi-Brutalist operational structures that are dotted across the site. The final chapter deals with the current development proposals for the site, with a consortium now planning to turn it into an up-market housing estate, thereby provoking a battle with the local authority. Throughout this dissertation there remains the underlying question of what happens next to this abandoned and unusual settlement, both socially and architecturally.

Emily Rowlands

This is a model postgraduate dissertation in that it offers an original contribution to knowledge, quite different from any other study that I have ever seen. Emily provides a remarkable historical account of the formation, operation and eventual abandonment of the US Air Force base at Upper Heyford in North Oxfordshire, portraying it not only as a military relic of the Cold War but also as a bizarre cultural parallel to the nearest town, Bicester. At its peak some 15,000 American servicemen and their families lived or worked on the base, eclipsing Bicester in size and wealth. She is the first scholar to discover that the US Air Force was actually allowed to build houses for servicemen not only on the base itself, but also in local towns to accommodate such a huge military presence.

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