taken from The Times | Saturday April 3 2010 | Military matters Register
Photography by Paul Dawson -
RAF Bentley Priory in Stanmore, North London, is for sale and could be converted into flats provided the developer finances the creation of a Battle of Britain museum in the principal ground-floor rooms.
Flypast on the Saturday. (12sep09)
As RAF Bentley Priory is the Grade 11* listed mansion from where Fighter Command was directed by Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, in Britain's first decisive victory of the Second World War in 1940, there is a highly charged subtext to an advertisement that appeared in Estates Gazette magazine recently. This offered
"a prestigious residential development opportunity of historical importance, RAF Bentley Priory, Stanmore. Former headquarters of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain [with] resolution to grant detailed and listed building consent for 103 dwellings and a museum/educational facility. Freehold for sale by informal tender. Approximately 22.9 hectares (56 acres)."
Many will be delighted if the residential housing market proves to have picked up sufficiently for the decommissioned RAF base at Bentley Priory to find a buyer, so that the creation of a Battle of Britain museum there, as well as the housing plans, can proceed apace. After a near-deal with a builder was scuppered in January 2009 by the credit crunch, Guy Gusterson is one of those looking for a turnaround. He is land director at VSM Estates, the joint venture company that, since 2008, has held a long lease of the Bentley Priory site from the Ministry of Defence and has the task of finding a developer or builder to buy the priory and develop it into housing units and the much wanted Battle of Britain museum.
According to Gusterson, the advertisement has produced a number of requests for further information, but he sounds a note of caution.
"The residential property market turned out better than anticipated in the last six months of 2009, but is still extremely fragile, so we need to manage expectations," he says. "However, if developers are being selective over the types of opportunity they are looking for, we would like to think that Bentley Priory would be extremely attractive to them, not only because of its location on the outskirts of London, and the nature of its site in acres of parkland, but because what is being proposed here is predominantly housing."
It was at Bentley Priory in 1939-40 that Dowding devised and put into action an operations system that so speedily processed information gleaned from radar trackings and Observer Corps reports that the RAF's fighter squadrons were able to scramble in time to intercept enemy bombers before they reached their targets.
"Dowding's system was crucial in determining the end of the war," says Wing Commander Erica Ferguson, executive consultant of the Bentley Priory Battle of Britain Trust. "If Britain had not stood firm in 1940, and had been invaded, there would have been no foothold from which to launch an invasion of Europe along the lines of D-Day."
The Bentley Priory Battle of Britain Trust that she works for is the charity that will fit out and run the Battle of Britain museum once the priory's eventual buyers have, at their own cost (a Section 106 obligation to be placed on them by the local authority, Harrow Council), converted the mansion's principal ground-floor rooms, and lower ground floor, for museum use.
"When the Heritage Lottery Fund assessors came to see Bent1ey Priory, they described our heritage as blue chip and said the atmosphere here made the hairs on the back of their necks stand up," says Ferguson. "We'll build on that. Our plan is for the museum to concentrate on the intangible aspects of the Battle of Britain - the people, the leadership, the courage, the belief in science - that made it all happen."
This year being the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, those who fought in it (the "few" as Churchill called them) are now very few, currently fewer than 100. One of them, the nonagenarian William Walker, who in August 1940 baled out with a bullet in his ankle when his Spitfire was shot down off Dover, is keeping an eager eye on Bentley Priory. He had hoped for the sale to go through last year as it might have meant there was at least an embryonic museum on site during 2010. As Ferguson recalls:
"When I told William about the deal falling through, he said, 'That's so sad. I so wanted to see the museum before I die.' I told him, 'Well, you'll just have to stay alive because it really is going to happen'." Ferguson is, she says, "cautiously optimistic that we'll find a buyer this time, but the champagne is not in the fridge yet".
Veterans and others interested will be welcome at Bentley Priory on Saturday, May 22, for a Forties Day.
For details of the Bentley Priory Battle of Britain Trust, see www.bentleypriory.org; Forties Day at Bentley Priory on May 22, www.stlukes-hospice.org.uk; VSM Estates, www.vsmestates.co.uk.
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Check out: the ROCA display at the Heritage Open Days at Bentley Priory on the 10th to the 13th September 2009