Examining Fylingdales and Menwith Hill
By Matt Callard
You’d expect a 10-year-old’s return coach trip from Whitby to be packed with vivid memories. You know, sandcastles and sea, the brass clatter of the arcades, the smell of doughnuts – the crackle of radio interference from a Ballistic Missile Early Warning System.
You never forget the first time you see RAF Fylingdales. Usually as you’re tootling along the A169 gently in thrall to the natural wonders of the North Yorkshire Moors. Could anything be more incongruous than those vast, dimpled radomes? Those eerie ‘golf balls’, blistering out of the green surroundings? It’s a sort of rude-awakening. Where you’re reminded the world is less a James Herriot novel and more a Noam Chomsky essay. As the comedian Mark Thomas famously said: “It’s like giant Tarby has found his pitch and putt.”
“Smoke and mirrors”
For a 10-year-old, the sight is disconcerting and strange. But when the coach driver passes as close as the barbed-wire and steel allows and, with a certain devilish glee, slows down and turns his radio up, revealing a barrage of crackling static, stuck signals and unworldly whistling, strange turns to frightening.
Those Fylingdales radomes are no more. They are replaced by an updated pyramid system. But the dimply eggs are still visible (in fact, they’re breeding) at nearby Menwith Hill. Both places are official RAF sites. But, in typical MOD smoke and mirrors fashion, used almost exclusively by the U.S military for – well, what exactly?
The official line on the function of Fylingdales is to spot and identify incoming inter-continental ballistic missiles. The site’s motto is ‘Vigilamus’ – We Are Watching. While Menwith Hill is an all-civilian ‘communications relay centre’. Basically a listening base (it’s casually known as ‘The Big Ear’).
Both sites are swamped in controversy. Originally conceived at the beginning of the Cold War – indeed the RAF claim the exact moment of conception was when ‘the nation awoke to hear on their early morning news bulletin the ‘beep, beep, beep’ of Sputnik 1’ – the sites’ original functions have long passed. Yet the implementation of ‘Star Wars’ technology and Menwith Hill’s ever-expanding collection of domes (from four in 1985 to twenty-six at the last count) prove the sites are as active and functional as ever.
Criticism comes from many areas, such as peace campaigners, environmentalists, personal privacy protectors. Menwith allegedly has the capability to listen in to 100,000 phone conversations simultaneously. Imagine the phone bill!
Plus, the sites hate any publicity. (On: Magazine journalist nervously checks over his shoulders). This desire isn’t helped by the numerous UFO sightings that have occurred near the bases over the years. Nearby Whitby is a UFO hotspot. There are regular reports of unexplained orange lights or silent fast-moving white lights. The bases themselves deny ever having detected a single UFO. But then what’s a military base without its extra-terrestrial activity denials?
Menwith Hill can be seen, in fact, as the original gated community. The base hosts a small village within its security ring. 4,500 people, mostly civilians, work at the station. There are underground shops, a theatre and a cinema contributing to the virtual town.
Fylingdales is less sociable. Urban myths surrounding hapless and unwitting ramblers or photographers suddenly surrounded by military personnel pointing guns are commonplace. Although the base has opened its gates to journalists in the past and guided tours are a possibility. Imagine the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-esque hilarity as Augustus Gloop goes airborne in a strange orange light and Veruca Salt launches a prime target missile assault on Luxembourg.
Yes, the bases remain operational. A constant reminder of our fragile position in a complex web of military one-upmanship. They divide those who support them as integral to our national security and those who see them as counter-productive Cold War anachronisms. But as vivid and unforgettable landmarks, casting odd shadows, they can make our imaginations run riot.
As the coach driver pressed on the accelerator, the 10-year-old watched the glinting domes disappear below the green hill in the early 80’s sunshine. The cough of the exhaust was like the hack of a golf club. Or the crack of a giant egg, hatching a monster.
Pictures: David Lindsay