England’s Newest National Nature Reserve Cleared for Take-off
An Article By Kerry Netherway, Natural England
SEVENTY years ago Skipwith Common would have resonated to the sound of heavy bombers taking to the sky. Now birdsong and the native-breed sheep and cattle grazing the heath are all that disturb the peace and tranquillity of England’s newest National Nature Reserve (NNR).
Man and nature have lived side by side on Skipwith Common for at least the last 6000 years, shaping the landscape, wildlife and access of the common we all enjoy today. The previous inhabitants have left many tell-tale signs that allow us to interpret and reflect on the past.
Left to right: Charlie Forbes-Adams (owner of Eskrick Park Estate); Lynn Crowe (Lead Board Member for Yorkshire & Humber, Natural England) and Peter Nottage (Regional Director for Yorkshire & Humber, Natural England). Photo: via K. Netherway, Natural England.
Riccall airfield was built on Skipwith Common in 1942. It was home to 1658 Heavy Conversion Unit, which trained crews to fly missions in Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers. The men who trained here served at Dishforth, Driffield, Leconfield, Linton on Ouse and Elvington airfields. Together these men took part in 61,577 sorties to play their part in ending the war. Many of them never returned – 221 personnel lost their lives during active service.
Spitfire Vb BM597 of HFC, Duxford, flown by Flt. Lt. Charlie Brown turning in for the fly-past. Photo: via K. Netherway, Natural England.
At the end of World War II, the airfield was abandoned. Some of the buildings were demolished and some were left standing. Parts of the runways and taxiways, as well as the foundations of the storage hangars and bomb fusing sheds, can still be seen today. The site of the control tower has now been returned to farmland, and the remains of the technical site blossoms with foxgloves and honeysuckle in summer. Although nature is slowly beginning to reclaim the airfield and its artefacts, the plants and animals found there are influenced by its very presence. Grass snakes, adders and common lizards bask during warm summer days in the defunct bomb stores, retreating into the brickworks to hibernate at winter’s first bite. As the concrete surfaces weathered and cracked, chalk-loving plants found a toehold in the heath’s acid soil, enhancing the site’s rich diversity. Mosses and lichens have colonised the runways, while birch and willow scrub have forced through the concrete to support an abundance of insects. You can find out more about the site and its status as a National Nature Reserve at www.naturalengland.org.uk.
It had always struck Craig Ralston, Natural England’s Senior Reserve Manager that this was a special place shaped by its unique history, a living memorial to those that built, serviced and served from RAF Riccall. They provided an opportunity for new species to arrive at Skipwith Common and created a home to many rare and special plants and animals. The hard surfaces now form the basis of easy access routes allowing people of all ages and abilities to visit and enjoy this haven. When Craig received a copy of an email from local historian and conservation volunteer, Mary Sykes, an idea took shape. Mary praised Natural England and Common owners, Escrick Park Estate, for their management of the site, but her comments on the Common’s memorial aspect really struck a chord with Craig. Working with the Estate and nearby Yorkshire Air Museum, Elvington (home to the Allied Air Forces Memorial), a project was drawn up to create a more public and ‘traditional’ memorial to those stationed at RAF Riccall.
The memorial on Skipwith Common, this is a cast of the Women’s Air Services Memorial Propellor at Elvington. Photo: Chris Percy.
To mark the public launch of Skipwith Common NNR, and in memory of the men and women stationed there, a special dedication took place on May 14th 2010. This also started a weekend of activities organised by Natural England to highlight the importance of this special place and to build on local community links to the Common. A cast of a Wellington bomber propeller, recovered from the Yorkshire coast, was kindly donated by the Yorkshire Air Museum and sits at the western edge of the bomb dump. The ceremony was well attended and the main dedication was given by the Chaplain of Yorkshire Air Museum, Reverend Taff Morgan . The climax of this dedication was the moment Spitfire Mk. V BM597 (G-MKVB of the Historic Fighter Collection, Duxford, flown by Flt. Lt. Charlie Brown) made a slow low level pass along the route of the old taxiway before rolling into the sky in an evocative salute over the new memorial and assembled crowd, including local school children. The children were given a short, informal presentation by Airfield Research Group members Noel Ryan and Chris Percy.
“It certainly made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up” said Craig. “The number of local people who have stopped me to talk about the event and the memorial, either because they were there on the day, saw it in the press or on TV or have subsequently seen the memorial on the Common clearly suggest we have done something we can all be proud of and in some way have played our part in shaping its next little bit of history. It fits so perfectly with what NNRs are all about: being jewels in the crown of the British countryside. Not just wildlife-rich places, but also supporting and safeguarding unique landscapes, special geology, archaeology and places where people can have an opportunity to engage with these features. Skipwith certainly fulfils all of these and in many ways, this is just the beginning of the story”
Charlie Forbes-Adam, owner of the 8000ha Escrick Park Estate, which includes the common, added “Skipwith Common has been very special to me since I was a small boy and I am delighted that it is receiving the status it deserves. The common is an oasis of biodiversity in the arable lands of Selby District and is a magical, almost primordial, place. We all hugely appreciate the resources Natural England has allocated to the common in recent years.”
Close up of the memorial inscription. Photo: Chris Percy.
The Common is enjoyed by the many visitors who come from far and wide, and there is a ‘Friends of Skipwith Common’ group who carry out practical conservation and run a programme of events for those who want to learn more about the site. The programme runs all year round and include archaeological events, broader interest walks, practical conservation tasks and family days.
Find out more at www.friendsofskipwithcommon.org.uk.