By Rosamund Mather:
When I was four years old, I moved to a village with a foot in two camps. Tucked into the northwestern corner of the eastern county of Suffolk, Lakenheath straddles two climates; search for it on Google Maps, switch to Satellite Mode and zoom out a little bit. You’ll notice that to the west, it is light green, and the villages are few and far between. This is the Fens, a marshy area spanning four English counties and lying almost three metres below sea level. To the east, there’s a clump of dark green spilling out, denoting an abrupt contrast: the Brecks, the driest part of Britain.
And funnelled right in between these diverging landscapes is a strange organelle. This is RAF Lakenheath, a base that has hosted United States Air Forces since the 1940s. Its presence meant that the new classroom I had stepped into was a microcosm of the US.
Today, I have made a trip to Lakenheath with my mother. We’ve been doing this every couple of years. We say it’s out of curiosity, but we both know it’s more for reassurance. The school looks the same. Some shops are still there, others have been pulled down.
The car grumbles along the track to the Warren’s entrance. Comfortingly, the crunch under the tyres hasn’t changed since those weekends of putting the bikes into the wide boot of the red Volvo.
The Warren is where the Brecks portion begins. It is a mysterious place. There’s a touch of Roswell about it; electricity substations, tall wire fences, juxtaposed with a sandy heath, houses concealed by tall bushes. If you’d asked me to describe the Warren as a child, I would have said it looks just like Mars; perhaps grassier, but very dry, certainly, with patches of sharp fringing the dusty craters. The fields are dotted with Scots pine, which I always thought were the same trees in the African Savanna. When I learnt the word "drought", I associated it with this place. Before any of us were alive, the Brecks were characterised by their seas of sand. What’s left behind is what makes the area so supernatural. It doesn’t look like it belongs in damp England at all. Even when it is grey, it glows.
‘There is a rusty light on the pines tonight;
Sun pouring wine, lord, or marrow.’
'Emily', Joanna Newsom, Ys (2006)
Mum and I traipse over the thin, golden grass shimmering at our ankles, then tear through fluorescent ferns to get to the sandy part of the Warren. A nettle nips my shin. I remember that you’re not supposed to scratch the sting.
I was slighted by the Warren on one of these walks as a child, when my blue Tamagotchi fell out of my rucksack. Swallowed, never to be retrieved. That’s when I realised that the Warren signified something greater than myself. The tall wire fence, cordoning it off from the base, still lends it a spooky undertone.
‘There are nuclear weapons under there,’ Mum mentions as we survey the vast airfield, coated in tarmac and dotted with hangars. Indeed, it chills me that deadly US military operations in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq have all started life in my childhood hometown.
After school, I’d jump into my American classmates’ SUVs - many of which had a puzzling combination of a left steering wheel and a UK licence plate - and tag along to the base. Admitted on their parents’ IDs, we’d go rollerskating, eat bubblegum ice cream and see movies not yet officially released in the UK.
These friendships were fun, but fleeting; usually they return to the US after a year. First there’d be tears, but finally a stoicism in the way that only children know how. How was their impression of my country shaped, from within the incongruous Lakenheath bubble?
The airbase’s history may be palpable, but there is still something primordial in the air in Lakenheath.
The craters giving the Warren its Martian look were Ice Age periglacial ponds – pingos – linked to sediments of the Bytham River found there. This is thought to have been the main route into Britain by its earliest settlers.
In 1997, the skeletons of the 6th-century Lakenheath Warrior and his horse were excavated, heralding the discovery of some 400 further graves. This archaeological breakthrough put Suffolk on the map again, 58 years after the discovery of a gargantuan ship burial at Sutton Hoo, on my grandparents’ side of the county.
It all refutes the aphoristic belief that villages are stagnant, that the only thing that changes is their residents, who faithfully live out their days until the next generation receives the baton.
The six years of Lakenheath that I can call my own – the window in which I existed and grew, shadowed by centuries and millennia – saw a village with a cosmopolitan edge. That window closed when we moved away. A fortnight later, there was one more, most unforeseeable change.
The past is a foreign country, they say. Lakenheath now straddled not only the Fenland and the Breckland, but pre- and post-9/11.
Not long afterwards, we were travelling via Lakenheath. The entrance to the base was bricked up, lines of cars backed up, fences even barricaded the residential area. It was now a fortress. No visitors. No after-school ice cream. All vehicles subject to inspection.
America no longer existed just at the end of my street. The world had been flung into an inscrutable, grown-up turmoil.
We have seen what we came for today, yet melancholy will follow us home. We indulge in a minute or two of stalling outside our old house. The garden fence has been pulled down, solar panels inserted into the roof. My childhood bedroom window is now frosted, suggesting it has been merged with the bathroom: no cell of me remains in there, not even in the rough white carpet.