From Friday 31st January, our walking trail, ‘Seeking RAF Biggin Hill’, is available for visitors at our museum reception. It can also be downloaded from the link above. It is a 1.6-mile trail in the vicinity of the museum, pointing out areas of significance. It is designed so that walkers can join the route where they want.
Below you can find extra details for the places highlighted on the trail. We hope you enjoy your ramble.
Distance: 1.6 miles (approx. 34 mins) in length
When selecting locations for this walking trail, we focused on places closely connected with the history of RAF Biggin Hill and that are within walking distance of the former airbase. We also took public accessibility into account. There are many remains from the former RAF aerodrome at Biggin Hill, but they are now on private land or access to them is very limited. Last, but not least, we felt it was important to point out the buildings which still exist, even in modified form. Former buildings, now lost, are included because of their connection to RAF Biggin Hill.
SAFETY NOTICE: As you walk along Main Road please be aware of other users of the road, especially cars. Also, be prepared for unexpected noise and gusts of wind as you walk around the edges of the airfield. Main Road has got street lights on pavements on both sides of the road but it is not advisable to walk in poor weather or at night. The trail is just under 2 miles long so it should not take more than 1hr if you are walking at a moderate pace.
** Teapot Gardens** no longer existing – now Costa Coffee
On this site stood ‘Highclere’, one of the oldest and most famous tearooms in the area. It was also known as Teapot Gardens because of the huge 4ft teapot mounted on a long pole. During the First and Second World Wars, units stationed at RAF Biggin Hill organised ‘moonlight raids’ – competitions to bring the teapot back to the airfield as a ‘prize’. Afterwards, the teapot was returned before it was then ‘stolen’ by another unit. Teapot Gardens existed until the 1980s when it was demolished.
– Black Horse pub
The Black Horse pub played the role of ‘dropping off point’ for buses coming to Biggin Hill. It was a popular pub for locals, soldiers and airmen. Today, the bus stop at Main Road is still called ‘Black Horse’ and stands next to the existing pub. The original building of the old Black Horse was demolished in 1908 and the new Black Horse was built, which you can see now.
– War Memorial
This War Memorial was unveiled on the 21st March 1923 to commemorate 32 people from Biggin Hill who lost their lives during the First World War. After the Second World War, 27 more names were added.
– The Nightingale Café (No longer existing)
The Nightingale Cafe stood here on this site. During the Second World War, the tearooms served tea and cake to the soldiers as well as welcoming passing trade. The cafe had an illegal fruit machine. Bill – the owner of the café – gave a bacon sandwich (known at the cafe as a “twitcher”) to anyone who scored three cherries in a row on the machine. Bill’s son, Geoff Greensmith, had a unique experience of war growing up as a boy at Biggin Hill. You can discover more about his story at the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum.
The original Nightingale Café doesn’t exist now but Biggin Hill Memorial Museum’s cafe, named after the Nightingale Cafe, keeps its legacy alive.
– Saltbox Hill
The Saltbox Tea Rooms were a distinctive landmark for pilots returning to Biggin Hill. Originally two cottages, it became a cafe before the RAF took it over in 1936. It was the only residential building on the airfield side of the road. It was demolished when the road was widened in 1954. The name Saltbox derives from the salt box house – a building with a tall upright shape and a steep, sloping roof. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the building that replaced it operated as the Salt Box Cafe – a popular cafe and motorcycling club. The original members still meet regularly for social occasions.
– Building 33 Station HQ
As you go along Main Road, you will notice many characteristic red brick buildings. They were built for the RAF but are now abandoned and inaccessible to the public. One of them is building 33, built in 1930, as the station headquarters building. The RAF ceased flying at Biggin Hill in 1959, after which the runways were transferred to civil control, with the RAF withdrawing from the site altogether in 1992.
– St George’s RAF Chapel of Remembrance
The St George’s RAF Chapel of Remembrance which you can see now replaced a temporary chapel located on South Camp which was destroyed by fire in 1946. The current building’s foundation stone was laid in 1951 after a fundraising campaign led by Sir Winston Churchill as a memorial to the aircrew who died flying from the Biggin Hill Sector during the Second World War. Twelve stained glass windows were designed by Hugh Easton. The chapel is open to the public (free of charge) during museum opening times. Weekly services still take place.
Next to the chapel is the Remembrance Garden. Ashes of people connected to the chapel, along with RAF personnel and their partners, are interred here.
– Officers’ Mess
Behind the tall fence, just in front of St. George’s Chapel, you can see a red-brick building which was used as the Officers’ Mess. Dated around 1935, it is now used as a private residence.
Welcome to Biggin Hill Memorial Museum. Here you can discover the story of Britain’s most famous fighter station through the personal experience of those who served there, and the community that supported them. Entering the Museum’s car park, you walk through the pre-war gate with an original RAF emblem, which are replicated on both of the museum’s main gates.
Sir Winston Churchill called RAF Biggin Hill ‘the strongest link’ in a chain of fighter stations that defended the capital during the Battle of Britain.
You will notice the Hurricane and Spitfire planes as gate guardians – replicas of planes flown by Geoffrey Wellum and Peter Brothers – pilots who served here during the Battle of Britain.
– Barracks Block RAF
Walk along Main Road towards Bromley. On the right you will see red-brick buildings which were a part of the RAF West Camp facilities. They were mostly established during the post-1923 expansion of the RAF. They operated as workshops, barracks, hangars, offices and a mess. At the moment there is no public access to them. Some of them are used by the Metropolitan Police (for example the former Guard Room) as the Metropolitan Police Service Dog Training Establishment.
– Vincent Square
Vincent Square used to be the married quarters for RAF personnel. It has now been developed for private housing. The remaining buildings date back to 1929. You will notice some gaps between the houses – evidence of bombing during the Second World War where some houses were never rebuilt.
– Kings Arms pub
This pub was very popular with pilots stationed at RAF Biggin Hill. The building itself has a long story dating back to 1585. On 18th August 1940, the Kings Arms experienced a direct hit. Customers Bill Blundell, Lou Deane and landlord Fred Horwood suffered machine gun injuries from a German Dornier. Bill lost part of his leg, and tragically both Fred and Lou died as a result of their wounds.
Street names (along the trail):
During your walk you have probably noticed some unusual street names. They are closely related to RAF Biggin Hill, commemorating pilots, personnel and places that played a big part in the history of the aerodrome. Do you know the stories behind the street names?
Please refer to the Nightingale Cafe.
- Discover the amazing mural designed by Olivia Bouchard in the Nightingale Cafe at Biggin Hill Memorial Museum. Did you know it was shortlisted for the World Illustration Awards 2019? Olivia was inspired by the stories of Geoff Greensmith, whose father Bill ran the Nightingale Café during the war.
Fighter Command Commander-in-Chief Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (1882-1970) was hugely influential during the Battle of Britain and therefore the Second World War. He conceived and oversaw the development of the ‘Dowding system’ – an integrated air defence system which coordinated information between ground and air for the first time. He was nicknamed “Stuffy” by his men for his alleged lack of humour. In 1951, Dowding laid the foundation stone of the St George’s RAF Chapel in Biggin Hill.
In late 1916, experimental testing on wireless communication was transferred from the Wireless Testing Park at Joyce Green near Dartford to Biggin Hill. The location at Biggin Hill was perfect: its high altitude meant there was less fog and mist, and it was still close to London. Staff at the Wireless Testing Park carried out experiments on valves, microphones, receivers and aerials. It was renamed the Wireless Experimental Establishment (W.E.E.) at the end of 1917.
As Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), played a key role during the Battle of Britain. His memorable line: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” engendered the enduring nickname ‘The Few’ for the RAF fighter pilots. The close proximity to Chartwell – the much-loved Churchill family home – made RAF Biggin Hill even more significant for Churchill. He actively led the fundraising campaign for building the new RAF Chapel in 1951.
Corporal Elspeth Henderson (1913-2006) was one of the first three women in Britain to be awarded the Military Medal, for refusing to leave her post in the operations room at Biggin Hill after it took a direct hit during a German bombing raid in August 1940. In recognition of her bravery and determination, she was awarded a Military Medal in November 1940. Unfortunately, there is no public access to this road.
Keith Park Crest
Air Chief Marshal Keith Park (1892-1975) was the commander of 11 Group during the Battle of Britain. In partnership with the Royal Navy, Sir Keith Park’s first operational responsibility as commander of 11 Group was to improvise plans for the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk in May and June 1940.
Commandant René G. Mouchotte DFC (1914-1943) was one of the most famous and admired French fighter pilots of the Second World War. On 1st September 1942, Squadron Leader René Mouchotte took over 615 Squadron and became the first non-British Empire airman to lead a RAF Fighter Squadron.
In January 1943, he commanded 341 Squadron, which moved to RAF Biggin Hill. Five months later he claimed the 1000th enemy kill. To mark the occasion, a huge party was held at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London, with attendees including Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle. Mouchotte was lost in a daylight raid in the Pas de Calais on 27th August 1943. His last words on the radio were “I am alone…..” and he was never heard from again.
Sergeant Helen Turner was the switchboard operator at RAF Biggin Hill and kept working as the building was hit and bombs fell nearby during a raid on 30th August 1940. In November 1940, she was awarded the Military Medal which was considered a ‘man’s medal’ .
Vera Atkins CBE (1908 –2000) was a British intelligence officer who worked in the French Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War. Her work at the SOE included interviewing recruits, organizing their training and preparing them to work in France. One of her major tasks was to create cover stories for all the special agents who were about to be sent into territory occupied by Nazi Germany. During the Second World War, she sent 470 agents into France, including 39 women. Unfortunately, there is no public access to this road.
Wing Commander Richard “Dickie” Grice DFC, was Group Captain at RAF Biggin Hill from 1939 and then Biggin Hill station commander from 1940. Sociable, friendly and well-respected by his colleagues, he was a regular at the White Hart pub in Brasted.
Every evening during the Battle of Britain, he arranged a coach to take his pilots for a meal and a game of darts at the White Hart. Apparently, he even had a loud speaker fitted to his car roof and, as he led the coach from Biggin Hill into the hotel’s forecourt, he would announce “25 beers!” (or whatever number) on the loud speaker. In 1940, he was posted to Australia and the White Hart held a farewell party for him. Grice wanted to leave a mark so that people would remember him. Using white chalk, he signed his name on a wooden blackout screen in front of the bar door.
Air Commandant Felicity Hanbury MBE, (Later Dame Felicity Peake, 1913-2002), was a founding director of the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF). Between 1940 and 1941 she worked at RAF Biggin Hill.
Eric Moxey GC (1894 –1940) was an officer of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. He was posthumously awarded the George Cross for voluntarily attempting to defuse enemy bombs on the airfield on 27th August 1940. One of the bombs exploded causing his death. Unfortunately, there is no public access to this road.
Philip Reginald Barwell DFC (1907-1942) was Group Captain at RAF Biggin Hill. He lost his life during a patrol between Dungeness and Beachy Head. He was shot down over the coast by an inexperienced Spitfire pilot from Tangmere. He is buried in the Calais Canadian War Cemetery. Unfortunately, there is no public access to this road.
WAAF Sergeant Joan Mortimer was in the Armoury at RAF Biggin Hill when the aerodrome was attacked by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. Although surrounded by several tons of high explosive, she remained at her telephone switchboard relaying messages to the defence posts around the airfield. Then, before the ‘All Clear’ sounded, Mortimer picked up a bundle of red flags and hurried out to mark the numerous unexploded bombs scattered around the area. Even when one went off close by, she carried on. This courageous act was recognised with the first of three Military Medals awarded to members of the WAAF at Biggin Hill that summer. Unfortunately, there is no public access to this place.
Extra Information for the Drive trail:
– The White Hart (Brasted)
The White Hart pub in Brasted was a favourite ‘watering hole’ during the war for pilots from Biggin Hill. Many fliers deemed The White Hart to be Biggin Hill’s second officers’ mess. The famous blackout panels with pilots’ signatures are now proudly displayed at The Shoreham Battle of Britain Museum. Katherine Preston, the landlady of the White Hart Inn at Brasted, shared her memories of wartime in her book “The Inn of the Few”.
-The Old Jail pub
The pub is believed to have been established in 1873. The name probably originates because prisoners travelling from London tto Maidstone were often housed here over night before their trials or even executions. During the Second World War, it was a popular place for meals and games among the airmen. Lilian Simpson, who lived with her family at Single Street and joined the WAAF at Biggin Hill, met Canadian pilot Keith Ogilvie here. You can discover more about their story and read letters Keith sent to Lilian during your visit to the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum.
The Old Jail pub cellar was used as a communal air raid shelter during bombing raids.
Chartwell was home to wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill from 1924 until his death. Now the property is under the care of the National Trust. Visitors can see Churchill’s study where he penned his wartime speeches.
– St Mary Cray Cemetery
This cemetery, also known as Orpington Cemetery, was used during the Second World War by RAF Biggin Hill. The majority of its 59 war burials are airmen. The average life expectancy of a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain was four weeks.
– 51 Leaves Green Rd
At this place, Dornier Do 17 Z-2 was shot down by Hurricanes from 111 Squadron on 18th August 1940 – known as the hardest day of the Battle of Britain. The Dornier was part of a force sent to attack RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Kenley. Later it came under rifle fire from the 4th Battalion, Chislehurst, Kent Home Guard, causing additional damage. All five crew members became POWs.
The operations room and Met Office Headquarters were relocated to Towerfield from Biggin Hill airfield after severe bombing in August 1940. The Met. Office was able to move back to the airfield from Towerfield in late October 1944. Currently, the building is not publicly accessible.
– Queen Victoria Hospital
The origins of the hospital can be traced back to 1863 but it became well-known in the 1930s thanks to Archibald McIndoe and his pioneering plastic surgery techniques and holistic approach to the treatment of allied aircrew during the Second World War. McIndoe treated airmen who had suffered severe burns when the fuel tanks in their aircraft caught fire. The unprotected hands and face of the pilots were usually the most severely burned and these injuries became known as ‘airman’s burn’. McIndoe is probably most well-known for his pioneering treatments, including the introduction of saline baths and the use of ‘tube pedicles’ for skin grafts. He also arranged for patients to visit the White Hart pub to help them relax and mix with the locals. Due to the experimental work performed on the men, patients became known as ‘McIndoe’s guinea pigs’. The injured airmen established the Guinea Pig Club (a support group) in 1957.
Other interesting spots:
While you walk along Main Road, you can explore other interesting places. Visit the Look Out Cafe if you want to have a good view of planes taking off from London Biggin Hill Airport. The Spitfire Cafe is also a nice place to visit if you want local history. Jugg Hill is a place for nature-lovers. Further afield there is Down House – the family residence of Charles Darwin and his family. A little further, in Bromley, there are Chislehurst Caves, which were an emergency shelter during the Blitz. Please be aware of opening times and admission fees before you plan your visit.
The Look Out Cafe
Maitland View, Westerham TN16 3BN
The Spitfire Cafe
154A Main Road
Biggin Hill TN16 3BA
Luxted Road, Downe, Kent, BR6 7JT
Caveside Cl, Old Hill, Chislehurst BR7 5NL
Main Road, Biggin Hill, Westerham TN16 3BX
Drive trail – even further:
Biggin Hill acquired a reputation as the most famous fighter station in the world, primarily through its associations with the Battle of Britain, the first time in history that a nation had retained its freedom and independence through air power.
Biggin Hill was part of 11 Group, Sector C, with its sector stations at West Malling and Manston, with the former customs airport at Lympne serving as a landing strip. Like Kenley, it was sited within the balloon barrage erected around London as part of ‘Operation Diver’ between spring and October 1944. In Kenley and West Malling, you can still see some wartime remains. Please refer to appropriate websites and resources to plan your visit there.
BBC, IWM, Historic England, BHMM, Biggin Hill Then and Now