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REALLY? When they wanted to build a new airport in the Suffolk countryside

PUBLISHED: 17:04 17 August 2019 | UPDATED: 10:13 18 August 2019

How the news was broken, back in the summer of 1989   Picture: STEVEN RUSSELL

How the news was broken, back in the summer of 1989 Picture: STEVEN RUSSELL

Archant

In 1989 a farmer sought permission to build a new Ipswich Airport on fields near Henley. The day after that news broke, villagers also faced clamours for an Ipswich northern bypass

Ipswich Airport, when the sky was the limit  Picture: OWEN HINES/ARCHANTIpswich Airport, when the sky was the limit Picture: OWEN HINES/ARCHANT

If you lived in a village or hamlet north of Ipswich, you might not remember what topped the UK pop charts 30 years ago but will probably recall a very anxious August. For summer delivered a double-whammy in the most jittery of weeks.

Shock number one was news of a bid to build an airport three miles north of Ipswich, on farmland at Akenham. Its backers dreamed of passenger flights to and from Europe, as well as "shuttle" services to some of Britain's biggest airports.

Shock number two came the following day. Campaigners scared by the number of new houses earmarked for land on the edge of the county town made fresh calls for a northern bypass. They argued it was vital to stop Ipswich being swamped by traffic.

All that must have cast a dark cloud over many a summer holiday, as folk in the countryside realised what could be lost if the blueprints ever got the go-ahead.

By the way, top spot in the singles chart was held by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers - a novelty pop act from Rotherham that strung together samples of songs such as Glenn Miller's In the Mood and Bill Haley and His Comets' Rock Around the Clock to create Swing the Mood.

The "front man" of the group's videos was a cartoon rabbit - Jive Bunny - and, with its jaunty beat, the compilation wasn't at all bad. But in August, 1989, you'd be hard-pressed to find much light-heartedness north of the Ipswich borough boundary.

A map from 1989, showing where the new airport might be built: at Akenham, about three miles north of Ipswich  Picture: STEVEN RUSSELLA map from 1989, showing where the new airport might be built: at Akenham, about three miles north of Ipswich Picture: STEVEN RUSSELL

'Plenty of space'

The aviation dream envisaged a new Ipswich airport being built between Akenham Hall Farm and Dameron's Farm. There was considerable weight behind it, with the launch of the plans taking place at a Civic Centre unveiling hosted by Ipswich council chiefs.

A suggestion to create a new airport near the A140 at Mendlesham had already been put forward, but this was proving controversial. Ipswich council leader Jamie Cann said in 1989: "Both these proposals will be treated even-handedly."

A third option for a new airfield was also being looked at, but details were not released at that stage.

The Akenham possibility came about when farmer Thomas Chaplin approached the council, suggesting building both an 820-metre hard runway and a grass strip close to the Henley road. He said at the launch "There is plenty of space for development as is thought necessary" and raised the notion of hourly flights to mainland Europe.

Flight of fancy? Thomas Chaplin, centre, indicates where a new airport could be built at Akenham. With him in this photograph from 1989 is Ipswich council leader Jamie Cann, left, and Mr Chaplin's adviser and friend, Freddie Gales, a county councillor who used to run his own airfield  Picture: IVAN SMITHFlight of fancy? Thomas Chaplin, centre, indicates where a new airport could be built at Akenham. With him in this photograph from 1989 is Ipswich council leader Jamie Cann, left, and Mr Chaplin's adviser and friend, Freddie Gales, a county councillor who used to run his own airfield Picture: IVAN SMITH

Council chiefs said the limited length of the main runway would determine the size of aircraft that would use the airport - to planes carrying up to 30 passengers, perhaps.

This would likely appeal to commercial operations similar to Suckling Airways, which had run a service between Ipswich Airport and Amsterdam before being stymied because its aircraft were allegedly damaging the grass runway.

However, Mr Chaplin's dream looked to have several hurdles to leap before it could come true. Residents in northern Ipswich were already complaining about traffic levels - concern heightened by a bid to build hundreds of new homes between Westerfield Road and Henley Road.

Ipswich council chief executive James Hehir wasn't worried, though. "The airport will not be a great generator of traffic in itself," he argued.

'No houses or anybody to annoy'

The control tower at Ipswich Airport in May, 1988  Picture: Jerry Turner/ArchantThe control tower at Ipswich Airport in May, 1988 Picture: Jerry Turner/Archant

Later that day, Mr Chaplin gave a guided tour of his farm at Akenham - pointing out a 220-acre field of arable pasture that might become a busy regional airport.

As well as the runways he envisaged a workshop, passenger and catering facilities, and hangars. He described the vision as "just a smaller version of a more elaborate airport. But there will be no commercial development, a business park or anything like that.

"There is as much space here as will be required. We will lease out more land as it is needed. I will carry on farming the rest of the land."

The farmer said his plan wasn't something he had rushed into. It had taken some time to come to fruition.

"We have been toying with it for a long while. It has really been in our minds since last autumn, when it first became apparent that the Nacton Road site [home to Ipswich Airport] was going to be run down."

With Mr Chaplin on that August day 30 years ago was adviser and friend Freddie Gales, a county councillor who used to run his own airfield.

Thirty years ago. Ipswich council leader Jamie Cann, left, prospective developer Thomas Chaplin, and his adviser and friend Freddie Gales, who used to run his own airfield, with a map showing where a new airport could be built a few miles north of Ipswich   Picture: IVAN SMITHThirty years ago. Ipswich council leader Jamie Cann, left, prospective developer Thomas Chaplin, and his adviser and friend Freddie Gales, who used to run his own airfield, with a map showing where a new airport could be built a few miles north of Ipswich Picture: IVAN SMITH

"As you can see, it is right out in the open," said Mr Gales. "There are no houses or anybody to annoy, and the direction of the flight path would take the planes over open land."

What did people think? Pat Lowin, then chairman of Henley Parish Council, wasn't leaping to conclusions.

"I am not immediately throwing my hands up in horror," he told us. "I really need to know a lot more about this proposal before I start making judgments.

"The immediate thing I would query would be the access to the airport. It might mean a lot of extra traffic and I don't know if the present road is up to the task. I would need to know a lot more."

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Why a new airport?

In 1929, the local authority then known as the Ipswich Corporation had bought nearly 150 acres of land - Ravens Wood. Building work started in 1930 and the airport was opened by the Prince of Wales (later to become King Edward VIII) at the end of June.

The aerodrome became home to a flying club, and in 1938 a daily service to Clacton started.

During the Second World War, the aerodrome was taken over by the Air Ministry. In the first month of the conflict, some RAF Blenheim bombers switched to Ipswich from their base at Wattisham, near Stowmarket.

In 1942 it became a satellite airfield of nearby Martlesham Heath and that summer hosted Spitfires.

When the war ended, club flying began again. In the mid-1950s a scheduled service began to Southend and the Channel Islands. By the 1980s, Ipswich Airport hosted a parachute centre, business charter flights, a trio of flying schools and a plane maintenance enterprise.

In 1986 Suckling Airways began flights to Amsterdam and Manchester, using a plane with 18 seats. In that first year the airline flew more than 12,000 travellers.

In the spring of 1988, after the airport lease-holders blamed the Dornier aircraft for damaging the grass, Suckling Airways moved first to Wattisham and then Cambridge.

Early in 1989 Ipswich council said its long-term strategy was to shut the Nacton Road airport, and hoped another one would be built outside the town.

Opponents argued that was nonsensical, as the airport was increasingly busy. As well as the parachute centre and flying schools, it housed a helicopter school, bar and restaurant, and other aviation-related businesses.

A hot potato

By the summer of 1989, the airport was a hot topic. Local Conservative politicians opposed the downgrading of the Nacton Road airfield, as did Ipswich and Suffolk Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber was calling for more investment, as well as a hard runway to be built at the current site.

Members were concerned it would take too long to create a new regional airport from scratch, at an out-of-town location, to take advantage of the lifting of European trade barriers in 1992.

A chamber spokesman said: "The continuing business development in Ipswich and the surrounding area, with a consequent rise in prosperity, should not be allowed to be stifled by the lack of a regional airport."

A new one at Akenham would "almost certainly" take a minimum of eight years to create "and would seemingly have no better prospects for future expansion than the Nacton Road site.

"The chamber still holds the view that development of the Nacton Road site by provision of a hard runway and associated services is still the speediest and most economical way to provide the area - and particularly the business community - with a sorely-needed regional airport."

Reg Driver, the Tory group leader at Ipswich council, agreed.

"An 820-metre runway is all you need to put down at Nacton and you have then got an airport right away," he said. "I still say that Nacton is the logical site for just that type of development."

Akenham brought a number of problems, he added. "One of the main things that has stimulated argument north of Ipswich is the possible traffic generated by the proposed housing development north of Valley Road."

And airport flight paths would be "practically in the back gardens" of homes in the Ipswich neighbourhoods of Castle Hill, Whitton and Broomhill.

He did concede that Akenham had more logic about it than Mendlesham, where talk of an airport had caused a storm of protest. He added, wryly: "In the meantime, I look forward to seeing where the airport is to be next week."

So what happened?

Officially, Ipswich Airport stopped being an airport on the last day of 1996, though the fight to save it rumbled on. There were petitions and even a sit-in, protest marches and a lobby of Parliament, but it was only a matter of time.

Amid an air of bitterness, clubs and businesses - along with the bar and a plane still using the airfield - called it a day during 1997.

The taking-off of a plane early in 1998 - it had been in a hangar, being rebuilt - was the airport's last hurrah.

The land became the Ravenswood estate, with houses, a school, shops, a medical practice and more. The airport's grade II listed terminal building was converted into homes and space for businesses.

The dreams of building a new facility at Akenham, Mendlesham or anywhere else failed to become reality.

For more than 21 years, after that final light aircraft took off from Nacton Road, the Ipswich area has been without an airport.

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