World Heritage missed list
Have you ever been to the former RAF airfield in Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire? It is a dump. Literally, stuff gets dumped there, cars mostly.
But until today it was in the running to be one of the 11 places put forward by the government as worthy of consideration for World Heritage Site (WHS) status. It failed. The Forth bridge, the Lake District and the Jodrell Bank observatory are in, having successfully fulfilled the criteria for attaining potential World Heritage Status by "representing a masterpiece of human creative genius or containing superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty".
There are currently 911 sites on the World Heritage list including the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef, the Taj Mahal and the Acropolis in Greece. The UK already has Ironbridge Gorge, the Tower of London, Stonehenge and the City of Bath listed. But the list of criteria published by WHS also allows for sites of great anthropological significance. And I would have thought RAF Upper Heyford ticks that box.
The application makes the point the RAF Upper Heyford represents a near perfect example of a military base with nuclear capability dating back to the Cold War. It was home to F-111 fighters and the United States Air force Strategic Air Command. It was an American run and occupied strategic position, which was used for bombing raids on Libya and the Gulf War. They left in the mid-1990s and it hasn't been used for military purposes since. But the ghosts remain.
The application goes on to say that the site is an historic monument and that, "as yet there are no military sites on the WHS list which represent the period in the history of mankind during which there was both the capacity and the plan to destroy most if not all the people on the planet".
It is an extraordinary place to visit: haunting yet weirdly alluring in a Ballardian sort of way. The fact that the vast majority of the huge acreage of prime Oxfordshire that the site takes up consists of roads, runways and increasingly derelict housing probably went against their application. It's certainly a scar on a beautiful area of the country, but that's the point.
In a way it doesn't really matter now; their application has failed. But it does highlight an often overlooked aspect of the heritage business, and that is those creations that are no longer new, but aren't very old either.
At what point does something become "heritage"? Constructions from the latter half of the 20th Century are now coming into range. Perhaps our next shortlist of tentative applications for World Heritage Status should include poignant examples of 20th Century life such as the M1 motorway or the Excalibur prefab housing estate in South London (if it hasn't already been destroyed).