Living in the UK it’s often easy to take for granted the many relics left over from the Second World War that pepper the majority of the British Isles – iron and concrete remnants from an era, the horrors of which seems to be gradually fading from the country’s collective memory as those that lived through the conflict die off, and society seemingly takes an increasingly isolationist turn, with a large section of it peering back into the past through a Red, White and Blue haze of nostalgia and halcyon bliss. Probably the less said about that though, the better.
Linton Camp in rural Wharfedale is a little different from the usual pillbox or air raid shelter you often see knocking around, in that it was one of only 36 children’s camps spread across rural areas throughout the UK (with scant few still surviving today), that were planned by the British government created ‘National Camps Corporation’ in 1939, to aid in developing a ‘camp mentality’ for the British youth – presumably as a reaction to the future prospect of war lingering indefinitely on the horizon. Officially though, they were constructed for ‘holidaying’ purposes, although with the inevitable occurring, their function changed somewhat, and they were subsequently used to accommodate young evacuees from cities under threat of bombardment.
Rather than just erect some military style barracks and calling it a day, the design of the camp buildings and layout for the whole scheme was, rather bizarrely, left down to the renowned architect Thomas Smith Tait, who had recently completed the Scottish government’s immense art-deco inspired headquarters in Edinburgh – a world away from the small, prefab wooden chalet-style huts that he drew up for the new camp schools – most of which were finished by mid-1940, before being subsequently filled with children from nearby cities, sent for a short ‘holiday’ until it was safe to return.
The majority of Linton’s intake, were branded ‘difficult cases’, and the school specialised in caring for these children, who often had issues relating to illness, disability, delinquency, or a problematic home life. The focus at the camp, was apparently on providing the approximately 250 residents, with an enjoyable, but educational environment, and to that end equipped with a swimming pool, gym, workshops, science labs, as well as various classrooms and common areas, and was probably seen as progressive for the time – I even saw it mentioned in a newspaper article from 1939, just preceding the camp’s opening, that a former member of staff from the Royalty frequented London hotel “Claridge’s”, had been appointed head chef at Linton – to me this sounds a little too luxurious though, and I failed to find any corroborating evidence so I doubt it’s accurate, or likely an exaggeration – a pot-washer could still be a “former staff member”, no?
After the war ended, the National Camps Corporation – its purpose fulfilled – was dissolved, and the majority of the nationwide camps were then sold on to various local councils, most of which continued their use in a similar fashion. In Linton’s case, it was sold to Bradford City Council, an area from which many of its original residents were sent from, and regained its use as a camp school for vulnerable children who didn’t fare so well at the state comprehensives. This lasted until 1986, when it was closed for reasons I’ve tried and failed to find, although ‘budget’ is usually the default answer in such cases. Since then the site has remained rotting in situ, apart from brief interludes where it was occupied by ‘New Age Travellers‘ in the 90s before they were evicted by the police; and also when it was apparently the setting for an acid house rave sometime after.
As is often the case when I explore a location, I was ignorant to most of this history as I trod carefully across moss covered flooring in the old dormitories, trying to avoid falling through any boards that had rotted after coming into contact with water falling from the deteriorated ceilings. Traipsing through a place for myself piques my interest in it, in a way that merely seeing photos online rarely can, providing an impetus for more in-depth research – being oblivious is also good for playing the fun game of “What’s this thing? What was this used for?”, and try to puzzle out a building from what’s left of it. In this instance, I already knew it was some kind of children’s camp before I arrived, but when was it built?, and when how long had it lain empty? I estimated that it had opened in the 80s and closed in the early 2000s, given the decent condition of the wood in many of the surviving cabins – Obviously I was way off the mark and would never have suspected it pre-dated the Second World War – that’s the longevity of Canadian Cedar for you!
As you can see from the photos, the cabins range in condition from ‘good’ through to ‘atrocious’, with the more exposed examples undergoing the greatest amount of suffering. Given the length of time they’ve languished, the huts have long since been stripped of anything interesting and its also obvious that I’m not the only one to notice the quality of the wood either – the floors have been uprooted in a number of the buildings, and many are missing large sections of their exterior boards, exposing the ribs of the structures. I’m reminded of a beached whale carcass I saw in a documentary once, where predators will slowly strip it over weeks, until an immense skeleton is all that remains.
Elsewhere, a small above ground air raid shelter still stands – the larger one tunnelled into one of the hills nearby, long since sealed with concrete, and a more modern static caravan sits at the entrance, probably installed to deter any further vagabonds from setting themselves up in the place. It looks like it was inhabited at one point, but now has been thoroughly vandalised, with windows smashed, furnishings disrupted and broken, and tattered lace curtains flapping angrily in the intense winds present whilst I was there.
Reading through personal accounts from former pupils, life at the camp school itself seems to have been enjoyable enough for most, barring the occasional tales of the excessive use of corporal punishment (a common occurrence in the British schooling system of the time), with a healthy balance between education and recreation, including many trips to attractions in the local area and events including theatre productions, pop concerts (with the students performing on cardboard instruments); and camping (with tents!) at the school itself. These days, a website and Facebook group have been set up by former students to share their memories of the place, and it’s fascinating reading through their differing experiences of the same location across the decades – the same square of land acting as a hub for friendships, rivalries, misadventures, and everything in-between.
The camp’s current status is somewhat complicated. Bradford Council have since sold it, and it was apparently purchased with a view to constructing housing on the land – proposals that were swiftly shut down by the Parks Authority, who deemed this would be a blight on the local landscape. The site was then seemingly sold again to a property management company, who filed a proposal in 2011 to renovate the buildings in their original style, and bring it back to recreational and educational use1, this time for disabled children. This was approved, but then work failed to commence within the required 3 year time slot. The last update was in May 2018, when an Environmental Impact Assessment was undertaken, regarding bringing the land back into use as some kind of tourist facility.
- There is precedent for this: Elsewhere in the county, Bewerley Park is an example of a former National Camp fulfilling it’s original purpose, and across the UK, other successes have proved that it is still a viable concept.