RAF Mildenhall: West Suffolk towns could learn from the legacy of Bentwaters and Woodbridge

Bentwaters closed in 1993 - and has been redeveloped as a business park.

Bentwaters closed in 1993 - and has been redeveloped as a business park. - Credit: Archant

Councils and government bodies looking for a new use for RAF Mildenhall once the USAF pulls out in 2019 have been looking at how Suffolk coped with the departure of the Americans from the east of the county in the early 1990s.

The USAF pulled out of their airbases at Woodbridge and Bentwaters near the Suffolk coast. Their closure came less than four years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall – and without as much notice as there has will be for the closure of Mildenhall.

Ray Herring was district councillor for Rendlesham at the time of the closure, and is now Suffolk Coastal council leader.

He said the closure of the air bases was a major blow for the area – a problem that was compounded by its relative isolation and the lack of good communications links.

There was not any immediate plan for the future of the sites, although the British Army soon saw the value of the RAF Woodbridge site and turned it into Rock Barracks – which continues today.

At Bentwaters the closure posed huge problems. The runway had been rebuilt only shortly before the closure was announced – it is one of the strongest runways in Britain capable of handling huge aircraft.

New houses were being built on the domestic site even as the closure was being announced.

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When the Americans left in 1993 they left a large number of modern, well-equipped homes – but also a town centre that had been full of American stores, diners, a theatre and other facilities, including what was said to be one of the best 10-pin bowling alleys in Britain.

The homes were occupied reasonably quickly, some were taken over by a housing association and others were put on the open market, but the town centre never regained its former use.Today Rendlesham is developing as a community with its own centre in another part of the village – but Mr Herring admitted: “Towns and villages don’t emerge as communities over a few years, it takes hundreds of years for them to really develop.”

The air base itself had an even more chequered development.

There were hopes – or fears – at one stage that it could be developed as a civilian airport, especially as Ipswich Airport’s closure had been proposed at the same time.

However because of its remote position, that was never a realistic prospect.

There were other proposals – one that was taken seriously for a time was turning it into a university for those who practice transcendental meditation. That failed to take off.

After several years of inactivity the air base was sold to the Kemball family, who have developed Bentwaters Parks as a business centre.

The runway remains intact, and it is a popular location for filming both films and documentaries.

The runway is often used to film stunts both for films and television programmes like BBC motoring show Top Gear.

Businesses have moved into some of the high-quality buildings around the base – including television production companies.

And the Cold War Museum has a growing reputation telling the story of the air base.

There is, however, still a great deal of potential at Bentwaters – 22 years after the last Tankbuster took off for its new home in Germany, the airfield still has many development opportunities.