I was born on the 3rd of August 1953 in Ulverston Cumbria – the eldest of two brothers. The first five years of my life were spent at ‘the Heights’, on Cartmel Fell in South Cumbria, overlooking the picturesque Winster Valley until the family moved a short way to the neraby village of High Newton. I remember fondly my time at Newton school in the village and credit my teacher there – Mrs Ruth Baines, entirely for opening my young mind to a broad appreciation of the wider world – it’s history, peoples, flower and fauna.
Having failed my 11+ exam in spectacular fashion I went on to become a pupil at Cartmel Priory C of E school where for the next four years I excelled at nothing. It was during this time however that my already well established love of books became a passion (at the expense of homework and other pressing concerns). I began to devour an eclectic mix of The Classics, Travel Journals, History, and Geography Works whilst becoming an aviation enthusiast, junior archaeologist and fossil collector along the way. This prodigious consumption of literature and the resultant accumulation of ‘carefully selected knowledge’ were mistaken by my parents for a sign of reasonable intelligence.
It was felt then that I would perhaps begin to strive academically if I were to enrol in a College of further education upon leaving secondary school – the seat of learning chosen to affect this miracle was the College of Lancaster and Morecambe and I began my first term there in 1969 (which coincidently was the very year I added a further three interests to my already considerable list… rock music motorcycles and girls!) It came as no surprise then that after several months of distraction and erratic behaviour that the college principal and I jointly decided that it would be for the best if I abandon any academic aspirations and perhaps seek employment of some sort!
For the next 5 years I drifted from job to job making my living in various ways. In 1974 I settled down, joined the prison service and married my first wife. After completing initial training I was posted to Gartree Maximum Security Prison, just outside Market Harborough in Leicestershire.
Like many prisons of that period, Gartree had been newly constructed on an old WWII military site, in this case on an old airfield that had once been home to a heavy bomber conversion unit.
As a keen aviation enthusiast I spent many enjoyable hours exploring the old buildings and runways that were still to be found around the site and tried to imagine the history and experiences of those who had served there during it’s wartime life.
In 1977, after an interesting and challenging time spent in maximum security I applied for a posting back to my home county so was soon on my way up to H.M. Prison Haverigg which is situated just across the estuary from Barrow-in-Furness. Once again I found myself working on an old WWII air base which had simply been enclosed by a fence!
For 15 years I slowly gained an insight into Haverigg’s wartime history but it wasn’t until 1992 that this research began in a dedicated manner. It was in this year that the prison service had occupied the site for 25 years. From its inception as an airfield in 1941 and subsequent use by various army units the site had seen almost 50 years of service occupation.
H.M.P. Haverigg’s Governor at this time was a gentleman called Bernard Wilson, who prior to joining the prison service had served in the Royal Air Force. Governor Wilson and I decided that research should begin into the site’s history with a view to presenting the results to the public at an event to celebrate the prison’s silver jubilee.
After a great deal of research we found the airfield had opened in January 1941 as No 2 Bombing and Gunnery School, to be re-designated No 2 Air Observer School later that year… and later still No2 Observer Advanced Flying Unit. The airfield was named RAF Millom.
By the time the silver jubilee event was staged I had recovered a Cheetah radial engine from one of the station’s Avro Anson aircraft which had crashed into the sea in 1943, killing all on board. The propeller from this engine now stands as a memorial in the prison’s gate area.
By this time I was in touch with many ex-RAF Millom veterans and as a result photographs and information began to flood in to what was fast becoming a major project in its own right. It also became clear that today’s RAF Mountain rescue service originated at RAF Millom and RAF Llandwrog in Wales, due to the numerous tragic accidents involving air crashes in the mountains close to their respective locations.
RAF Millom Museum
So many artefacts and information accumulated so rapidly that it became obvious that enough was available to enable the establishment of a museum somewhere on site.
Working entirely with bemused volunteers and using mainly recycled materials we converted a disused R.A.F. building adjacent to the prison into the RAF Millom museum. The grand opening took place at Easter in 1994, less than 2 years after the project to research the history of the airfield had begun. In tandem with this, an annual reunion for RAF Millom veterans was organised too, taking place each September, which at its peak enjoyed an attendance of over 300 guests from the UK and overseas.
To restore artefacts that I was recovering from aircraft crash sites we established a workshop within the prison manned by long-term inmates. This initiative proved a huge success and the workshop team went on to restore a ‘Flying Flea’ aircraft and built a further one from scratch as well as many other restoration projects on various items including aero engines and three jet cockpit sections. When Governor Wilson retired in the late 1990s it became obvious that the new management received the aircraft restoration workshops in an entirely different light in spite of its success and obvious public relations value.
In 2000 I was both surprised and delighted when summoned to Buckingham Palace to be presented with an award by HRH Princess Anne for the achievements at Millom. However I was less than delighted (though not entirely surprised), when less than 6 weeks after this event the workshop was closed permanently on ‘health and safety grounds’. In spite of this the RAF Millom museum continued to flourish under my curatorship and with the assistance of volunteers from the local community and the unflagging support of RAF veterans.
In 2004 I felt the time was right to hand complete control of the museum over to a community team. By this time it had a modest sum of money in the bank and was secure in the buildings in which it was housed. This decision meant I could concentrate on family issues and perhaps even begin working on documenting the history of RAF Millom into a book which would be published for general consumption.
In 2006 due to a family bereavement and after 32 years in the H.M. Prison service I took early retirement and began to fulfil a lifelong ambition to travel the world.
During this time RAF Millom museum had been made a Limited Company and under its new curatorship began to grow on an unprecedented (and ill-advised) scale. Following a period of gross mismanagement the museum was subsequently closed and forced into liquidation for the scarcely believable sum of a quarter of a million pounds! It was with dismay that I heard this news and was called in to try and save what personal and private property I could before the museum was sold to clear some small portion of its debt. In an effort to protect many years of hard work all possible documents and the photo collection were moved to the Solway Aviation Museum at Carlisle airport, however I was forced to stand by helplessly as the museum’s collection of artefacts, books and aero engines went to auction. A sad end to over a decade of hard work and enthusiasm by so many dedicated people.
Author, John Nixon
In the wake of this tragedy I established my first book entitled “Oh Mother, it’s a Lovely Place”, a history of RAF Millom and their mountain rescue achievements, and in doing so preserved the story at that airfield and the wonderful men and women who served there for posterity.
Since then, a second book ‘Wings Over Sands’ a history of RAF Cark No1 S.P.T.U and RAF Grange-over-Sands No.1 E.O.T.S. has been published and become a local best-seller. Book number 3, a history of RAF Walney 10 A.G.S., was launched to great reception at the end of February 2014… In Summer 2014 it was shortlisted at the Lakeland Book of the Year Awards.