The UK's Abandoned Military Bases (And What They're Used For Now)

By Spencer Hart on at

The UK is littered with abandoned military bases, forgotten fragments of the past that now lay in a state of decay -- but it doesn't have to be like this. With a little bit of creative restoration these rusty, crumbling monuments can be transformed into factories, race tracks, luxury hotels and...detox sanctuaries?  Bet Kitchener didn't see that coming. We explore some of the most interesting conversions below.

1. Hethel Air Base, Norfolk

The gloriously flat Norfolk landscape was the perfect home for RAF airfields during World War II. One of the more well-known examples was RAF Hethel, which was built in 1942 and used by both the United States Army Air Force and the Royal Air Force.

The base was closed 1948, and for several years the buildings were used to house families after the war. Now it's found a much more interesting existence, currently being used by the sports car manufacturer Lotus as their headquarters, factory and vehicle test track. Hethel isn't the only disused airbase to be adopted by the car industry, there's also the famous Dunsfold (of Top Gear fame), Bedford Autodrome and Snetterton, to name a few. [Image Credit: Wikipedia]

2. Maunsell Sea Forts, North Sea

Maunsell Sea Forts are small towers built in the Thames estuary which provided defence from air raids during the Second World War. Despite looking relatively fragile, the forts are equivalent to military grade bunkers, and, as well as providing air defence, they are also deterred German minelayers.

The forts are responsible for taking down 22 planes, 30 flying bombs, and were instrumental in the loss of one U-boat, but were abandoned after the war and came to be inhabited by pirate radio stations. The most famous reused fort is now known as the Principality of Sealand, the self-declared micronation.

Originally called HM Fort Roughs, the Principality of Sealand has been occupied by family and friends of Paddy Roy Bates since 1967. The micronation is in international waters, it has its own government, royal family, national flag, stamps, coinage, and sports teams. Sealand still exists today, ruled by Prince Michael, Paddy's son, but it's still not officially recognised as an official country - that didn't prevent the Pirate Bay fellas attempting to buy it in 2007. [Image Credit: Wikipedia]

3. Underground Bomb Shelter, London

Thirty-three metres below Clapham is a network of tunnels which were built as bomb shelters during the Second World War. The tunnels are 430 metres long, and could accommodate 8,000 people at the height of the Blitz.

Recently the tunnels have found a surprising use after being transformed into an urban farm by Zero Carbon Foods. Broccoli, pak choi, pea shoots, rocket and red lion mustard are grown in the space, making use of hydroponics and LED lights. The aim is to sell the leafy goodness within the M25, creating less waste in the process. [Image Credit: Zero Carbon Foods]

4. Solent Sea Forts, Portsmouth

Also know as Palmerston's Follies, these sea defences were built in the late 1800s. The four forts are located in the Solent, between the Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, and they were commissioned as an early defence against Napoleon III.

The forts now have a new lease of life. No-Man's Fort was bought in 1987 and converted into a luxury residence, but Birmingham businessman Harmesh Pooni failed to find a buyer, so he barricaded himself inside to hide away from his creditors. The fort eventually sold in 2009 for just £910,000, and has now been turned into a luxury hotel with a spa, bar, nightclub, helipad, jacuzzi and LaZer Battle Arena. [Image Credit: Wikipedia]

5. Martello Tower Y, Suffolk

This Napoleonic Fort in Suffolk has been converted into a unique holiday cottage. Over 100 towers were built along the south east coast, now only 47 survive, some have been converted into museums, visitor centres, galleries and private residences.

This is our favourite transformation however, it uses modern design features blended perfectly with the historic structure and landscape (...is what we guess Kevin McCloud would say). The towers were never actually used in combat. [Image Credit: Suffolk Cottage Holidays]

6. Churchill's Old War Office, London

Only recently the Ministry of Defence decided to sell off the Whitehall building in which Winston Churchill masterminded his Second World War victory. The Old War Office has 1,100 rooms and two miles of corridors.

In a cost-cutting effort the MoD put the building up for sale in December 2014 -- it was quickly snapped up by property developers for a cool £300 million. It's expected that the building will be redeveloped as a luxury hotel and residential apartments -- which is just what the capital needs. [Image Credit: Wikipedia]

7. Nab Tower, Isle of Wight

Another abandoned sea fort on the coast of the Isle of Wight, although Nab Tower was built in World War I as submarine defence. Originally eight towers were planned, but the war ended before even the first one was completed. In 1920 this sole survivor was sunk at Nab Rock to act as a marker and lighthouse at the entry of the Solent.

The tower has had a varied life, it brought down some aircraft during World War II, it was a manned lighthouse, and in 1951 it was the main setting of the Hammer Horror film The Dark Light. Now the Nab Tower is a fully autonomous, unmanned lighthouse, and made the news in 1999 when a freight ship named Dole-America collided with its concrete base. The ship was carrying bananas and pineapples, and only survived sinking by running aground. [Image Credit: Wikipedia]

8. Bull Sands, Humber Estuary

Similar in design to No Man's Fort and Spitbank, these sea forts were used to protect the Humber Estuary. But one fortification, Bulls Sands has found a particularly innovative new purpose -- a drug rehabilitation centre.

In 1997 the fort was sold to the Streetwise Charitable Trust. The plan was to transform it into an offshore detox sanctuary, where users can be isolated from external influences. Although lack of news surrounding the conversion suggests that the charity haven't been successful yet. [Image Credit: Wikipedia]

Bonus Entry: Krausnick Airship Hangar, Germany

OK, so this one clearly isn't in the UK, but it's too good an example of military conversions "done right" to leave out. The Germans really know their stuff when it comes to transforming disused military buildings, with this airship hangar on the outskirts of Berlin converted into a rainforest and theme park. Doesn't get much cooler than that, right? [Image credit: Wikipedia]