BY MANDY BALDWIN
In 1943, some immensely brave young men, none of whom knew if they would see the next sunrise, built a chapel out of prefabricated huts, and it was dedicated on the anniversary of the Battle of Britain, 15th September, 1943. Three years later, having survived the war, it burned down. With money in short supply, and greatly distressed, Winston Churchill set about finding funding to build a permanent chapel for his boys – by now known as ‘The Few’ – and finally, in 1951, St George’s was consecrated, built more or less along the lines of the original pre-fab design, and guarded by two fighter air-craft.
I can give no better description of St George’s chapel than is given on it’s own website.
This chapel is steeped in history and was built as a memorial to those pilots who gave their lives in the Battle of Britain and other conflicts. The chapel is not a museum, but is a living chapel with a community that worships each week at the Saturday night Roman Catholic Mass and also the Anglican/Free Church service on Sunday. During the year the chapel also has multi-denominational services when the Friends celebrate St George’s Day, together services of commemoration for Battle of Britain and Remembrance. The chapel also has an annual service of Nine Lessons and Carols in December.
And then there is the connection with Winston Churchill.
‘My personal association with Biggin Hill during the Battle of Britain lives in my mind. As a nation we have short memories and it is well that Memorials such as this should bring to our remembrance the cost of victory in the days when one of our fighter pilots had to be worth ten. They died without seeing the reward of their efforts; we live to hold their reward inviolate and unfading”.
Why would anyone harm or neglect such a hallowed place? The man voted greatest Briton dedicated it to the most iconic of what we now describe as the greatest generation. You don’t get more bullet-proof than that. And it’s a Grade 2 listed building – which should ensure that it is preserved externally in it’s original design.
The website lovingly describes a living place of worship and remembrance, and a rather beautiful one, at that. http://www.rafchapelbigginhill.com/ Sadly, since the website was written, along came Bromley Council, and the case was altered.
Because now comes the bad bit: duplicity, vanity and bullying which is a betrayal of every one of those young men who never returned, and each survivor who mourns them.
And it all began with Anna Soubry.
In 2014 she was Minister of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans and declared this icon, intended to be the spiritual home of The Few, not worth the £50k per year it cost to maintain. So much for the care of veterans, eh, Anna!
I’d previously seen Anna, looking ‘distraught’ at the heart of a mob in Parliament Square just after the Referendum, rather like Lady Macbeth inexplicably put in charge of a Primal Scream class.
Recently, apparently unmoved by events in Newcastle, Rotherham and other places, she informed us that white working class people should emulate the Muslim community, which has ‘angered and embarrassed’ (Nottingham Post) her Broxtowe constituents.
And now I discover she was the instigator of this. It doesn’t increase my fondness for her.
Naturally, there was an outcry at the cutting of funds. A petition was launched which resulted eventually in 30,000 signatures. Questions were asked in the House of Commons, with Bromley’s MP Bob Neill being particularly vocal.
The campaign ended with David Cameron offering £1million and pledging to do all he could to preserve the chapel in perpetuity.
It had already been decided that there should be a museum built to finance the costs of the Chapel, and the Biggin Hill Trust produced a design separate from the chapel itself. However, when the costs exceeded £5 million, Bromley Council withdrew support.
The Battle of Britain Supporter’s Club then came up with a different design, based on an aircraft hangar, which would fire the imaginations of visitors, and which didn’t impinge on the Chapel itself. This was granted planning permission from Bromley, and cost £2 million. It was a very popular design, approved of by veterans, and by the majority of local residents.
All should have been well.
However, at this point, Bromley Council dropped support for the museum project altogether, and announced they would close the chapel as a place of worship, and make it into a heritage centre. The Battle Of Britain Supporter’s Club, which had spent years fundraising, rejected this, naturally.
Then, out of the blue, and as if the Supporter’s Club and the design for which the Council had granted planning permission had never existed, Bromley Council formed a new museum trust, ousting the Supporter’s Club and, into the bargain, arriving at a design which costs over £5 million – which they had claimed was breaking point for the very first design.
Instead of seeking Heritage Lottery funding for the design which had been so popular, and had been accepted by them, they presented a new design, were given funding– and granted themselves planning permission.
They did this despite ferocious opposition to the plan by local residents: out of 100 letters regarding it, only 4 were in favour. There was also some oddity alleged, regarding posting of notices, and withholding of information from the public. They even claimed that they had arrived at the design in collaboration with Historic England – a fabrication. A second petition – against the Council’s plans – was recently launched, which already has nearly 18,000 signatures. And Bromley Council continue to ignore all public opinion.
The architects responsible for the Council’s plan are best known for an effort at Olympics 2012 – they designed an electricity sub-station. So, what did they think appropriate for St George’s mellow, modest, clean, simple lines?
Evidently, they are still keen on the electricity sub-station motif, because their design is truly awful. They imprison the quietly evocative chapel, with it’s rosy-coloured stone, behind large, pale, discordant square walls, swamping it’s elegance, demolishing it’s shape – and indeed, to achieve this effect, involves actually demolishing the Grade 2 listed vestry, which houses the Air Crew Association stained glass window.
When I say the design is indescribably ugly, I don’t exaggerate. Bring to mind the well-known photograph of the entrance to Auschwitz death camp. That is exactly what it looks like, with the smart little steeple horribly reminiscent of the huge chimney. It is hideous.
This was a living chapel, with services of all denominations. Perhaps it’s not due to petty spite and pre-empting the planned desecration and disdain for local opinion, but whatever the reason – and no other reasons are immediately evident – the Council have now locked and barred it, so nobody can get in. They even closed the Garden of Remembrance, on “health and safety” grounds (this aspect is being ‘reviewed’). But they say the chapel will remain closed while their design is inflicted on it, until opening in November 2018.
This is not the case with the original, popular plan. There is no reason for St George’s not to function as a chapel during the time those works are carried out.
As it is, under the command of Bromley Council, the cruelty to these very old men, whose days, let’s face it, are numbered, is breathtaking.
Those who remain were promised that their funerals could be held here, in their very own chapel, their ashes placed in the garden of remembrance. This was a vow. These men are in their 90s now. They don’t have the time to wait while Bromley Council indulge themselves. In their closing years, they have a right to visit the chapel at any time they choose – and deserve better than to find the gates are locked and barred against them.
And remember, none of it was necessary. The original plan didn’t require closure. No further design was required. I’ve read countless reports, opinions, newspaper articles, plans and comments, and I am simply astonished. This is seriously unpleasant stuff. The council have no justification, no excuse, no reason whatsoever for steam-rolling those who really matter – veterans, their long-time supporters, and local people. This is no more than an arrogant whim, an abuse of petty, but none-the-less destructive power.
I would dearly like to know: just who do they think they are? Petitions against them receive huge support, the locals reject their plans, but Bromley council persist.
Why? What drives this campaign which is distressing so many thousands of people?
Maybe it’s iconoclasm.
Maybe, in destroying part of the chapel, and belittling the rest, they hope to belittle the legend. I think of the reaction to the recent film Dunkirk: some, appearing to believe they had successfully convinced us that until the advent of mass immigration, English people were incapable of putting one foot in front of the other, were clearly distressed to see the incredible courage of English people openly celebrated.
The Battle of Britain must cause such people actual pain. This was, after all, our finest hour. There are those who think that flame of ancestral pride should be extinguished for the greater good – of whom, they don’t specify.
Even the very structure of the chapel, in the pinkish brick and classic neo-Georgian style of the time, so quintessentially English, must appear to them as dangerously reactionary,
As the political climate changes, there is a veritable rash of attempted iconoclasm, as if the Politically Correct Old Guard are desperate to destroy our remaining monuments and relics before anyone learns the version of history the Old Guard haven’t revised.
They have a fight on their hands, because beneath the layers of passing ‘isms’, is the truth of who we are and where we come from: we have each, so to speak, touched the hand of someone who touched the hand of someone of the generation who defended these islands, no matter the cost.
In fact, I’d bet there was a strong element of this attitude in those experts who called the Council’s horrid design “exemplary”, (of what?) and that it was there in spades, unacknowledged, in Soubry’s demand that the chapel should be let go. But – and it’s just a hunch – I don’t think that’s the intention of Bromley Council. I don’t think it’s anything so dramatic.
I suspect this is simply about bossy people who revel in the power of being big fish in a small pond, and want to see their names on a brass plate, reducing the chapel to a celebration of themselves.
While I was researching this, on Battle of Britain Day, there was a terrorist attack – one of four in Europe that day – on Parson’s Green tube station. We are beset, within our gates, and beyond our shores, by an enemy with intentions as malevolent as that which The Few bested.
A different kind of Battle for Britain is being waged, which we must win.
We call on the spirit of Biggin Hill to inspire us and remind us of who we are, in adversity: not some vast marble cathedral but a simple building which evokes our collective memory.
It has a beating heart. We need to know it is there. It mustn’t be reduced to an incongruous relic behind the jarring walls of someone’s vanity project, the protests of those who matter, silenced.
They really are The Few now, those legendary warriors; only twelve left of those who hurled themselves at a mighty foe and won. Young men went into the sky to fight evil and having done so they passed the torch to the young men and women who still guard us on land, at sea, and in the air.
If they choose, they should be laid to rest here in the chapel dedicated to them, or free to visit any time they want, and those from foreign lands should be free to visit the memorial to a father, grandfather or great grandfather who flew into the sun to save the world.
Their deeds were mighty but their memorial is as understated as the Britain of the time. We know cameras lie, but stones don’t, and this quiet, simple building speaks volumes about an age when Britain was vastly powerful, but modesty was in vogue.
It is vital to let it stand, enhanced not hidden, to let it breathe as a place of worship as well as study, this reminder of the spirit of free Britain, in the Garden of England.
To allow Bromley Council to have their way would be a heartbreaking rejection of decency, resulting in a brash, soulless structure which would stand as a damning memorial to the bumptiousness of local government despots – and as a lasting insult to The Few.