By Ken FrancisAirframes

Early in July this year, my lovely wife Tricia, her mother - 95 years old - and I were having coffees, on a veranda overlooking the marina on the eastern side of Emsworth, when we decided to attempt access what used to be RAF Thorney Island; the marina was, after all, just off the access road to it. Although aware that the station had long since been turned over to the Army, we left the marina area and turned right, rather than left which would take us back towards Emsworth. After a short distance we could see a double barrier across the road manned by uniformed, and armed, army personnel.

When we pulled up at the barrier we realised that these armed guards were indeed very efficient female soldiers. We explained that we would like to visit the church on the far side of the station - the traditional reason for civilians gaining access to East Thorney where the church stands. We received a slightly nonplussed look and were told that a change of policy was afoot and we were to wait at the barrier whilst it was discussed inside the guardroom. Several minutes later a male Cpl came out and asked us to wait in the car, just inside the barrier, whilst they consulted the padre. After a while we were told that the padre himself would come to escort us across the station to the church.

In due course a small car came from the direction of the station, reached us, swung round and stopped. Out got a young looking - to me anyway - man in military uniform, who turned out to be the padre - I think he was a Capt.

‘So you would like to visit St Nicks,’ he said, ‘just follow me.’

He got into his car and drove off; we followed.

Having not been there for fifty years - almost to the day - there was an air of familiarity for me about the station as we drove through the domestic area to get to the far side of the “island” where the church is located. I recognised the barrack block where I lived as a Cpl prior to promotion, then the Sgts’ mess where I subsequently lived and socialised. We then drove across what was recognisably a runway - I don’t remember seeing any hangars, although surely they must have been there – past the Officers’ mess and turned left towards the church. We parked our car next to the padre’s alongside what appeared to be his admin building; he got out and led us to St. Nicholas’ Church which was close nearby. He opened the door and, having ascertained that we were confident enough to find our way back to the station's exit, left us to our own devices; we didn’t see him again.

The church dates back to around 1100, having since then gone through several major modifications; originally probably having twin aisles it now only has one. The walls are built of flint rubble with dressings of ashlar, mainly Caen stone - shades of post Norman invasion.

Tricia was so taken with the church, and its location, that she asked,

‘Why weren’t we married here?’

I had no answer to that, but seeing as I was serving on Thorney Island at the time of our marriage I agreed with her and asked myself the same question.

The RAF has left its mark on the church with a very prominent pulpit, made of oak and slate, that had been presented by No 2 Air Nav School in 1962. There are other wall plaques detailing all the RAF units that were at Thorney Island from 1940 to 1974 and also a very nice window with the station crest etched into it showing the RAF occupation as being from 1938 to 1976.

This window, interestingly enough, gives a view through to the rear of the churchyard where, separated from a large area of old civilian tombstones, there is a military graveyard. Maintained under the supervision of the CWGC - Commonwealth War Graves Commission - it contains the graves of RAF and Commonwealth personnel lost during WW2, along with a smaller number who have passed away since then. A sub-section of this part of the graveyard also contains the graves of twenty-one German airmen who died during WW2 – their aircraft having either crashed or been shot down. There is a common commemorative tombstone, annotated in both languages, positioned between the English and German graves.

The padre did mention, in passing, that he was currently planning the next Anglo-German Commemoration Service, an event held annually at the church.

Whilst I was taking all of this in, Tricia - part of the time anyway - and her mother were sitting on a bench overlooking Chichester Harbour with a view over the water across to Chidham. The weather was lovely and, as the church grounds run down to the water’s edge, it was very relaxing.

Just along from the church was what used to be the station sailing club where, as a member, I had spent many a happy hour ; it is now an army water sports centre looking altogether larger and more comprehensive.

All too soon it was time to leave, so we drove back across the station to the exit where we returned the large visitor’s pass we had been issued with and were allowed to pass under the raised barrier back into civilian territory.

We didn’t leave RAF Thorney Island, as I had known it, we had left what is now known as “Baker Barracks”, home to at least two regiments of Royal Artillery and possibly other units. It’s never the same when you go back to somewhere after such a long time!!

(Coincidentally my two daughters, as part of my 80th birthday prezzie earlier in the year, treated me to a long weekend on the south coast during which, apart from doing the touristy bit - Pompie dockyard, Marie Rose, Tangmere Museum etc. - we too decided to visit my old stomping ground of Thorney Island - Hastings conversion in 1965, Hercules conversion in 1967 and then 1969 to 1973 as a Hercules Flying Instructor. We didn't have to wait for a Padre to escort us across the domestic site and the airfield but, after my having a mug-shot taken and given a pass, we were free to go to the church/sailing club following the road signs that would avoid our passing through the domestic site - round the old perimeter track and past the hangars that Ken missed; I ignored this instruction and drove straight through past the guardroom, Sgts' Mess and barrack blocks then later returned the 'legal' way. I'm sure Ken will forgive me for adding the images of the church, and the view across the water, to his interesting article. Brian)