Rooms with a retro view as couple transform old RAF North Creake control tower
PUBLISHED: 17:22 02 November 2012
© Archant Norfolk 2012
It looks in places as if a bomb has hit it… or has gone off pretty darned close by.
To passing motorists, the former RAF station control tower standing sentry close to the Fakenham to Wells road at the place they call Bunker’s Hill must seem a curious, rather forlorn sight.
Exposed brickwork peers out from the crumbling concrete rendering that constituted its outer flesh.
Corroded and weathered railings surround the balcony from where airmen once gazed out across yawning runways, awaiting the return of crews of Stirling and Halifax aircraft from their second world war special missions to confuse Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe…
And, with the removal of cedar shingles from a more modern age, the building even has a bizarre, mock-Tudor look about it these days.
Step inside the tower and you discover wallpaper partly torn off walls, half-finished floors, paint jobs waiting to be finished and piles of clutter here and there.
“At the moment, it’s at its worst,” concedes university academic, politics lecturer and onetime gardener Nigel Morter, who with Claire Nugent moved in just over a year ago.
But just you wait: the husband-and-wife team are in the thick of an extraordinary transformation project that will not only salute the tower’s heritage but share the story of its part in Hitler’s downfall with a present-day generation still hungry for stories about the war. They’re not modernising the place – rather, they’re taking it back in time. And, little by little, they’re getting there.
If everything goes to plan, bed-and-breakfast guests will next summer be shown to their rooms in the old signal office or controller’s rest room. They’ll relax in a cosy lounge – originally the air station’s meteorological and teleprinter room - resplendent with 1930s furnishings, wash and shave in art deco bathrooms, choose what to have for brekkie on Ministry of Food-style menus and read daily postings of the RAF station’s operations schedules as they were in the days of 1944-45.
What’s more, the tower will look much more like it did back then than it has done for years.
For now, achieving this means making do, mending and existing in organised chaos, but the couple are living their dream. “It is the world coming together for us – everything we wanted,” says Nigel.
His wife adds: “We are really fired up for the whole thing. We’ve got well used by now to the cold and the grit and the dust all over the place.”
The isolated farmland setting, fringed by the Holkham Estate, was used first as a decoy site by the air force. And then, almost exactly 70 years ago, building work started on a heavy bomber base, called RAF North Creake (it’s actually nearer Egmere), complete with three intersecting runways, a control tower, technical and administration sites and quarters for more than 3,000 servicemen and women.
In due course, 100 Group of RAF Bomber Command used the station to employ counter-measures to disrupt the Nazis’ electronic and radio communications: window, or chaff, clouds of thin strips of aluminium dropped from the air during Allied bombing raids to confound enemy radar operators with false readings; and the jamming equipment, Mandrel.
In peacetime, Mosquito planes were stored there for a while but the runways were largely broken up. Some aerodrome buildings survived, though, to become civilian homes, a woodyard, part of a feed mill and agricultural sheds.
Nigel, who works at London Metropolitan University, grew up in an aviation-orientated family: both Granddad and Dad had worked for De Havilland, the latter on Mosquitos. He and Claire, who headed the careers department at the University of Hertfordshire before taking voluntary redundancy, came across the control tower after a tenacious, if tortuous, quest.
With their shared fascination for the bold shapes and clean lines of Britain’s wartime aerodrome architecture, they had first considered acquiring one of the remaining airfield operations blocks still standing. “We’re really into modernism and deco and wanted to have somewhere, a building with potential, that reflected our tastes,” says Claire.
Despite setting their sights on various examples dotted around East Anglia, their efforts ended in disappointment.
“Eventually, Claire persuaded me that we should expand our horizons and search for old control towers, which I did in a fit of pique. Then we found this. And finding it was like serendipity,” says Nigel.
After use as offices, a workers’ mess room and flats, the control tower had been converted into a comfortable, full-sized home. But the décor and fixtures weren’t what Nigel and Claire had in mind. They wanted to remove its post-war alterations: those shingles , its pitched roof – a task still to be done – various sheds from the woodyard days and a claustrophobic belt of leylandii hedging that obscured it from the road.
Even its chichi contemporary kitchen will go eventually, to be replaced by a 1950s-style version with metal and Formica fittings. Well, Nigel would look more at home in there, with his retro taste in clothes and luxuriant 50s quiff…
Getting the tower just how they want it has sprung the occasional surprise. One day, Claire found some of Bomber Command’s chaff under the concrete yard and had the presence of mind to find out what it was before consigning the stuff to the bin.
Outside, too, the steps to the upper floor have been re-fabricated. In time, the brick walls will have a smooth, authentic rendering once again and those observation balcony rails will be restored as well as they can be. “Anything that isn’t skilled labour, we are trying to do ourselves,” says Nigel, whose grounds maintenance skills from his past career are coming in handy with the landscaping.
Parked around the control tower, between an air-raid shelter that could hold 50 people at a squeeze and an original RAF North Creake motor transport department Nissen hut they succeeded in acquiring, are reminders of yet another era – the late-50s and 60s – in the shape of Rootes Group cars, including a Humber and Hillman Minxes. They form part of a wedding and civil ceremony car business that Nigel and Claire have just founded.
It’s a life-changing journey for the couple, who have a son, Cillian. And what do their friends think of it all? “Everything from thinking that we’re completely nuts to total amazement - perhaps even a little bit of jealousy!” said Claire. “But all of them have been very encouraging.”
Seventeen aircraft were lost during operations out of RAF North Creake, and the owners say that, while indulging in their private passions, they are determined to treat the control tower and its heritage with due reverence.
“We want to respect it as a building, and protect the authenticity of its history,” says Nigel.
The couple are seeking photos and memories of the former aerodrome and the years that followed its closure in 1947. You can contact them, and find out more about their Wedding Wheels-next-the-Sea business, on 01328 821574.