Owls and aeroplanes – a Group visit to Stow Maries

05 August 2014

SIG: Archaeology and Heritage

The afternoon of Saturday 12 July saw sixteen Group members and visitors, following lunch at The Queen's Head in Maldon, venture into the remote farmlands of east Essex in search of a remarkable First World War Royal Flying Corps aerodrome.

2.	Stow as it was left in 1919.  Now the aerodrome buildings are in course of restoration

Stow as it was left in 1919.  Now the aerodrome buildings are in course of restoration

Airmen's Mess.  A Preservation Order protects the tree in the water tank !

Located near the village of Stow Maries, construction of an RFC aerodrome here arose from the need to defend London and the east coast from German Zeppelin and bomber attacks, which for the first few months of the war met little opposition. The airfield became operational in September 1916, and by mid-1917 No 37 (Home Defence) Squadron had a strength of 16 aircraft and some 200 personnel, later to rise to 24 and 300 respectively.

Inside the hangar.  SE-5 at far end;  in foreground is 1960s-built Shield Xyla

Cockpit of SE-5. Lewis gun fires over upper wing, Vickers gun through propeller arc

The airfield was vacated by the RFC in 1919 and reverted to farmland.  By good fortune most of its buildings – 24 in total, including offices, barracks, officers' and airmen's messes, ambulance station, crew ready room – were retained by the farming family for agricultural use; today, almost a century later, most are undergoing restoration to return the aerodrome as nearly as possible to its World War I appearance.

One of several contemporary RFC vehicles on the aerodrome

Bell at entrance to Airmen's Mess. (Mystery - Stow was never an RNAS station !)

Memorial to the ten pilots of 37 Squadron killed in action, 1916-18. Site is the station's original Parade Ground.

Unique in being in near-original condition, the site and buildings, all Grade II listed, are maintained by the Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome Trust.  The hangar houses a number of planes in flying condition, and hosts visiting aircraft on Fly-In Days; volunteers here also conduct workshops teaching the skills of aircraft restoration.  The grass airfield itself, and parts of the adjacent woodland, are an important natural habitat and conservation area, home for example to all five varieties of British owl.

Aircrew ready room; blackboard lists duty pilots on 24 August 1918

Station Commander's office

The site is open to the public on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.  For our private visit, a Trust guide gave us an excellent briefing and a comprehensive tour of the buildings, hangar and museum, some of which are illustrated here.

Text and photographs © R. K. Evans

Feature photograph: SE-5 was one of the war's most successful fighters, introduced in March 1917