From frontline of the Cold War to tranquil haven of peace
It’s hard to imagine a more peaceful spot ... groves of trees with sun filtering through the leaves, banks of scarlet poppies, and golden cornfields stretching into the distance.
Only the occasional jagged chunks of concrete and tarmac give a clue to its past.
This was once a military base and behind its heavily guarded fences was a cache of nuclear weapons.
During the 1950s and ‘60s, as the Cold War threatened to get hotter, the former World War Two airfield was not just a weapons store but also a launch site for US ballistic missiles.
But in this corner of the old airbase nature has all but buried the last remnants of RAF Shepherds Grove, which closed down 50 years ago.
And now it is being transformed by dedicated volunteers from the Sudbury area ready for a new role.
It will be home to a charity that helps young people with learning and behaviour problems by teaching them gardening and woodland management.
And Sow To Grow, which bought the five acres at Stanton last March, also hopes the tranquil surroundings will provide a relaxing haven for people with dementia and mental health issues.
Their volunteers have spent the past year hacking through undergrowth to get access and allow wildflowers and young trees to flourish on land most recently used to dump road chippings.
“In some places the brambles were 20ft high,” says Allan Scott-Davies from Assington, who co-founded the charity and is a trustee alongside Sarah Steel, Trudi Jeffs, and Clair Steel.
“We had to chop them down with secateurs, wearing thick gloves. That’s the only way we could do it.”
And Sow To Grow’s first base was at Assington, where it operated until last year offering horticulture tuition to young people with autism.
The hope was to keep both projects going, but cuts in its students’ allowances meant Assington was no longer viable.
“That’s when we started to think we should maybe be bigger so we could offer more,” said Allan. “When we first saw this place, we could see its potential.”
The Stanton site, named Upthorpe Wood, includes woodland glades tamed just enough to be hired for outdoor functions which will raise money to support their work.
Solar lights are strung through the trees, and there are covered areas that can double as classrooms.
Nothing will go to waste here. They have built compost loos, where calls of nature are turned into plant food.
There is also a solar-powered shower, although earlier in the year you would have had to share it with a nesting blackbird.
In places the concrete under the grass is six feet thick. “We brought in a machine to try and break it up, but it didn’t touch it,” Allan says.
“I spoke to P&O, who have a lawn on one of their ships, and they told me it only has about a foot of soil. So we put compost on top of the concrete and planted the grass in that.
“Tarmac from the old runway had also been dug up and dumped here. I was driving a three-and-a-half ton digger to move it – not something I’d done before.”
The heaps of tarmac could now pass for natural features, rapidly colonised by fast-growing plants .
“So far, we have planted 2,000 trees around the site,” he adds. “They include 840 given us by the Woodland Trust, all native species.”
The garden where students will learn to grow vegetables is a work in progress.
“Eventually we will have a big veg garden with raised beds. I have designed one which is the right shape for people in wheelchairs to work on. There will also be an area for growing cut flowers, and sensory beds,” Allan says.
Gales early this year took their toll and meant starting again on some of the buildings. “Our polytunnel got blown halfway up a tree, there were trees down, we lost the roof of the toilets, and the barn roof was smashed to pieces.”
Sarah and Clair Steel, and their father Barry – all from the Sudbury area – are the most regular volunteer helpers. But sometimes up to eight people can be busy on the site. Allan’s dog Henry is also a popular member of the team.
Allan has lost count of how many hours he has spent working on the project. It leaves little time for his other jobs ... he is a writer, illustrator, and gardener. He has also worked in heritage and conservation. And Sow To Grow grew out of a conversation with his now-fellow trustees while he was managing Melford Hall for the National Trust,
Upthorpe Wood will welcome its first students, from West Suffolk College, Bury St Edmunds, in September.
“People with mental health issues have already been coming to paint and draw, or just to sit, look at the views, and relax,” said Allan.
“It would be nice to get ex-service people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder here too, and we also hope care homes might bring residents who have dementia. We have this lovely place. We just want people to come and use it.”