When war ends, the areas affected usually fester as bombed-out piles of rubble or are demolished then remade as a new chapter of history begins. Neither was the case when the US air force 351st Bomb Group departed Polebrook Airfield at the end of the second world war, however. In fact, not much has happened on this 36-hectare site in Northamptonshire since 1945, when the requisitioned land was returned to its owner, the pioneering natural scientist Miriam Rothschild. She made a conscious decision to simply leave it … and leave it … and let nature reclaim the land, its three concrete runways and air force buildings that were home to nearly 3,000 American airmen during the war, Captain (and Hollywood superstar) Clark Gable among them.
Give or take a failed forestation scheme in the 1970s, it’s barely been touched by human hand since, and the former airfield slowly evolved into the private Polebrook Airfield nature reserve. Rothschild began this rewilding scheme half a century before the term was invented and became fashionable. In the 77 years since, a variety of habitats have taken hold on the flat, formerly featureless land: woodland, dense scrubland and open grassy areas in between.
Joanna and Fin Broadbent, who was brought up on this land, bought it together with his parents in 2017, and have continued Rothschild’s good work. And in March the couple opened two low-impact holiday cabins here – and named the scheme the Wilding Airfield to generate a bit of income to help maintain the reserve. As he shows me around the grounds, Fin tells me, “Although there is space to do it, we didn’t want to go down the route of ‘Let’s build 20 cabins and a communal barbecue area on this nice piece of land.’ We want it to be a place where guests can escape and be amongst nature.”
You can certainly do that. The airfield is 12 miles from Peterborough and only four from the beautifully preserved Georgian market town of Oundle (“Market charter granted in 972,” reads the welcome sign). It’s hard to picture a prettier, more quintessentially English town. The Saturday market is still going strong and we pick up homemade poacher’s pie and local produce for the barbecue, and wander the streets of elegantly worked limestone buildings, still wearing their Union Jack bunting from the jubilee weekend, before heading to our base.
Our cabin, Birch View, sits on the end of the former third runway, the odd patch of concrete still visible under the moss, lichen and grass. It is so secluded, surrounded by nothing but white birch trees and birdsong, that we float into our own little world the moment we arrive. The cabin is compact and beautifully decked out, with picture windows, a breakfast bar, one double bed squeezed in at one end of the cabin and a second directly above it in the mezzanine. There’s a well-equipped kitchenette (and a generous hamper, including breakfast and prosecco), but we had more fun outside, building a fire in the firepit, barbecuing on its grill (there’s a wood-fired pizza oven too) and sloshing in and out of the large hot tub on a lovely summer’s evening.
It’s the isolation that makes this such a special place. The owners are on hand, but leave you to it, and we didn’t see anyone else all weekend. But I did feel a pang of cabin envy when we spied the reserve’s second holiday property through the trees. The two-storey Two Pines Treehouse (in the top picture) looks cooler than our cabin, is raised on stilts, surrounded by a roped-off terrace and (it says on the website) has a king-size bed and a William Holland copper bath sitting on the deck.
The dense woodland is crisscrossed by neatly mown grass paths or corridors, which are also used as thoroughfares by the fluffle of cute rabbits. We used them to explore the reserve, and saw turtle doves, bullfinches, blue tits and goldfinches along the way. I think we also spotted marbled white butterfly and five-spot Burnet moths, among others – but as a townie, I couldn’t be sure. (Given the wealth of wildlife here, the cabin could do with a spotters’ chart of birds, butterflies and wildflowers, rather than just the laminated list, and perhaps binoculars, too.)
In an adjacent field that’s still home to a second world war hangar, we saw red kites swooping down to prey on young ground-nesting lapwings, only to be chased off by their protective parents. Most of the other airfield buildings were broken up for hardcore in the 1960s, and those that are left are hidden in the undergrowth. But with directions from Fin we discovered the atmospheric shells of a couple that give a real feel of the airfield’s history: the two-storey generator room, now covered in graffiti, and an almost perfectly intact concrete bomb shelter in the unusual shape of a church nave.
The reserve’s other fascinating landmarks are the large outdoor sculptures by Fin’s father, the artist Barney Broadbent, dotted around the far end of the site. Barney creates bold and beautiful works of art, mainly in wood and metal and featuring birds and animals, which incorporate petrified beaks and antlers found on the land to stunning effect.
The immersion in nature is total here we realised that evening, as we were serenaded to sleep by a cuckoo and a nightingale.