Ipswich Icons: Early airfield at Martlesham was the base for Battle of Britain ace Douglas Bader

Martlesham Heath and Adastral Park

Martlesham Heath and Adastral Park - Credit: Archant

Martlesham has been a settlement since the Bronze Age, with a number of round barrows (burial mounds) surviving to the present.

These are marked on the Ordnance Survey map as tumuli and stretch over a wide triangular area between All Saints in Kesgrave, St John’s in Brightwell and St Mary’s, Martlesham.

The traditional centre of Martlesham village was, however, the area around the Red Lion and the bridge where the turnpike road from London to Yarmouth crosses the River Finn. The churches mark the extremes of the heath which was open ground used as rough pasture for grazing cattle and sheep.

Occasional visitors to modern Martlesham will find it difficult to find St Mary’s Church, which is on a buff above Martlesham Creek, a backwater of the River Deben.

• The church is a mile east of the Red Lion on a site that has been used for religious purposes since the Middle Ages.


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• The current building is late 19th Century and is notable for its Arts and Craft window glass, installed in 1905.

• The heath is mainly level and was deemed ideal for the construction of one of the country’s first airfields.

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• The Royal Flying Corps was based here from January 1917, having transferred from Upavon in Wiltshire.

After the end of the First World War the airfield continued to be used, initially by the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE).

Aircraft would take off from here and drop their payload onto Orford Ness where the bombs were filmed as they dropped, the analysis of which was an attempt to increase the accuracy of aerial bombing.

When the Second World War started it was decided that Martlesham was too close to the east coast for secret research so the A&AEE moved to Boscombe Down in Wiltshire.

The airfield then became a base for fighter squadrons defending Britain from aerial attack.

Wing Commander (later Group Captain) Douglas Bader served at Martlesham Heath with 222 and 242 Squadrons, in 1940. Bader had joined the RAF in 1928 but he didn’t settle for a quiet career.

In 1931 he crashed his plane and unfortunately lost both of his legs.

When war broke out he applied to rejoin the RAF, again as a pilot.

He had to undergo tests to confirm he could fly (which he passed) and was engaged in enemy action, including the Battle of Britain. Bader is credited with 20 aerial victories.

Following the end of the war he campaigned for disabled people and was appointed Knight Bachelor in 1976.

The airfield lived on after the end of the war but without a meaningful purpose and slowly the military drifted away until in the early 1960s, the site was sold to a developer, the Bradford Property Trust.

The hangars were put to industrial use while the land owners negotiated with the local authority to create a new village.

From 1975 onwards some 3,000 people moved into the new estate which was innovative in the design of its houses set out in a traditional village layout. Thus a completely new community developed, spreading out from the green (cricket pitch), new church and village shops.

At about the same time the GPO announced they were moving from Dollis Hill to a new complex on part of the old airfield. Adastral Park, as it became known, provided employment for some 5,000 people, a substantial proportion of whom were graduates, many taking up accommodation in the new village of Martlesham Heath.

The research carried out since the mid 1970s has led to numerous technological innovations, mainly in telecommunication.

The industrial use that started in the hangars in the 1960s has grown into a major industrial estate and retail park with some of the major national stores and a host of local entrepreneurs, many developing their ideas with partners on the Science Park.

Today Martlesham is the eastern extremity of the conurbation of Ipswich which is unbroken from the borough boundary through Rushmere, Kesgrave and across the heath to the older parts of the village.

It is then but a short mile of open country into Woodbridge.

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