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Some Notes from Chicksands January 2002

I have just retired from the Army after 4 years as Commandant at Chicksands. In that time I have seen the form up of the new UK Intelligence & Security training organisation and the opening of the re-furbished Priory, a visit by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Another Royal visit by Prince Michael of Kent took place early in 2000. Later that year the US Reunion was the main event. The Time Team visit in May last year was memorable and as I leave, the first stages of persuading contractors to take on some aspects of running the base and delivering training is getting under way. In that time, Chicksands has come back to life. Its different from the USAF time, there are only 450 permanent staff and about half of these live on base with their families. At the height of the USAF presence there were 3200 people on base and car parking was a nightmare! However, we have over 6000 students a year staying on base and some of them are with us for over two years learning languages.

The transient population has made it difficult to start clubs and activities. Many of the permanent staff are civilians, living off base. Their lives are tied up with their own villages and families. The students tend not to become engaged in base activities of a long-term nature. It is the more remarkable therefore that we have restored the Walled Garden and re-established the Friends of Chicksands Priory. We also have a thriving pre-school on camp entirely run by volunteers, we run a voluntary cinema, there is a busy thrift shop, beauty shop and coffee bar. The gymnasium is always full and the rugby club won the local league last year. Chicksands is also host to an annual football competition involving 10 teams from the Intelligence Corps who come from all over the world to compete. The camp has that kind of attraction – people just like coming back, as those who attended the US Reunion in July 2000 proved.

The Reunion has left a real mark on Chicksands. We restored the Memorial Wall and the Osborn Bell has been repaired and housed in a purpose built bell tower by the wall. The US Stars and Stripes flies daily at the wall since 11 September 2001. The MIA/POW flag flies on appropriate occasions alongside the Union Jack.

We have a fine friendship fountain in the Walled Garden given by US personnel who served at Chicksands. We have trees planted by Colonel Jim George and a huge quantity of spring and summer bulbs donated by Whitney Booth. When it gets muddy, Becky Fahey’s boot scrapers by the herb garden come into action. Kathy Curthoys and her husband Scott the US Exchange Officer at Chicksands, restored the herb garden.

Outside the Walled Garden, Bill and Shirley Grayson’s stone seat they generously donated to Chicksands, is an ideal spot to look down past the Priory to the lake. The water is now deep and clear; we dredged it last year and dumped the mud on Sports Island where your running track was. I regret this area floods regularly now and its really only useable in the summer.

We have three museums on site. The Army’s Intelligence Corps’ museum traces the history of military intelligence from Waterloo (1815) to the present day. We have 16 new exhibits to find space for this year! The Medmenham collection is the history of military photographic interpretation from WW1 through to the present. It is a unique national archive and we have plans to expand that to twice its size as well. Finally, there is the US Commemorative Room, which we opened on the 13 July 2000 thanks to the generosity and enthusiasm of many of you. It features two original radios and a mock up intercept position, a scale model of the FLR-9, several uniforms, a recent fire service exhibit and numerous artefacts and photographs of the 45 years of US presence at Chicksands. A small dedicated team of Americans living in UK are keeping the museum tidy and developing its displays.

This year we hope to open two more museums. The RAF "Y" Service have no official history, yet their work at Chicksands was vital to the British war effort, particularly at the time of the German bombing raids at night using radio beams to guide the aircraft to precisely the right spot. Due to some brilliant and painstaking work at Chicksands, the German system was detected and jammed. Taking the idea used by the US Room, we will have a mannequin of a female Sgt working a HRO HF Receiver, surrounded by a few artefacts and pictures from the Priory in the 1940s.

The other museum is to be in the Priory itself. The TV programme last year provided us with a great deal of new information about the Priory and the Gilbertine Order. There were several interesting "finds" and we have sufficient information to make an interesting exhibit for those who tour the Priory. The centrepiece is to be a scale model of the Priory, which will be nine feet long and four and half feet wide. It will feature lights and music and its our intention that visitors to the museum will file into a completely dark room at the start. Faintly, the sound of deep Gregorian chant will emerge from all around the room. Then, a small light will appear, suspended in space it will seem – then more lights and as the chant grows louder the shape of the huge model will slowly appear until at the height of the singing, the whole Priory appears lit from within and above.

Parts of the model will show the world famous medieval great hall roof dating back to around 1460 – a little before Christopher Columbus sailed off to the New World. In short we will create the "Chicksands Experience". There is just one slight catch; I need the equivalent of $60.000 for this! We have raised $15.000 so far, not bad for one month I think. We are hoping the local Council and the National Lottery will find the rest. The museum is scheduled to open in December this year.

For those of you who want to visit Chicksands, the best time to do it is during a Friends of the Priory tour on the first and third Sunday of each month from April to October each year. The organiser for these tours is Julie Benson (Juliebnson@aol.com) and a message to her should get you in OK during the afternoon. We do ask for a donation of £3 per head. This covers the Friends Insurance, their expenses and it adds to their ability to fund things like the model. You also get tea and cakes for that donation!

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for your support during the Reunion and since. Although I have never met many of you, I can say that my dealings with you on the Internet reveal a very strong and loyal community of really good people. It has been a great honour and pleasure to meet so many of you. The Stars and Stripes flies proudly over Chicksands and we British remain always grateful to our closest Ally, the Americans.