Second World War home to The Few at Duxford is now home to many
The Officers’ Mess is a thriving Mantle Business Centre that offers a fascinating window into its history.
Second World War fighter pilots like legendary Spitfire ace Douglas Bader once walked its corridors.
Now, the Officers’ Mess at Duxford is a hive of activity again – as a home to an array of modern businesses.
Three years on from a sensitive ‘light-touch’ renovation, the faith shown by planners, English Heritage and the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in the plans of property company Mantle looks well-placed.
In the Heart, a light, open space at the centre of the Officers’ Mess, a café is open to the public and business users alike. Adorning the walls are biographies of the fascinating characters who once graced the site.
Characters like Bader, who lost both his legs in an aerial acrobatics accident but went on to become a deadly fighter pilot, and Hughie Lamb, who managed to survive crash-landing his P-51 Mustang into the North Sea when his plane caught fire – and continued flying into his 90s.
The officers have left their marks on the mess – in places, quite literally – and Mantle’s job was to ensure they left them etched in the building for good, while converting it into useful, flexible serviced office accommodation.
“I think the history and character of this building is very appealing and made it an interesting project,” says Guy Baker, founder of Mantle.
The company spent £2.5million refurbishing and reinstating the building as a business centre after winning planning permission to convert the grade-II listed premises.
“The IWM decided in about 2010 that the Officers’ Mess at Duxford was surplus to their operational requirements,” recalls Guy.
“The RAF had left Duxford in the 1960s and the IWM took it over in the 1970s. It’s the best and last example of a fighter base. It’s enshrined in the Local Plan as a museum and the IWM take their responsibility very seriously.
“The building had fallen into disrepair. It had been used in the 70s and 80s, for example, to practise hostage recovery and it was used for the storage of artefacts but it was increasingly unsuited for that.
“The IWM needed to find a way of maintaining and repairing the building when they had other financial constraints so they were looking for somebody with a sympathetic and compatible use.
“We had a long dialogue to understand their needs and aspirations.
“The fact that the building is grade-II listed means the conservation officer at South Cambridgeshire and English Heritage were consultees.
“Our application was judged as to how intrusive it was and whether it would change the nature and character of the building.”
Mantle took a 120-year lease on the building and set about an 18-month refurbishment programme.
“We’ve tried very hard not to make changes. The individual elements within each of the rooms are maintained and we’ve put in surface-mounted services,” says Guy.
Walking around, signs of the building’s heritage are everywhere, from the original timber, windows and fireplaces, to signs above the doors that reveal the historic use of the rooms: there’s ‘Batman’, ‘Slops’ and ‘Stores’ – the latter, appropriately enough, is now home to the wine company Casella Family Brands.
The wardrobe space in officers’ bedrooms has been maintained as storage and Bakelite light switches retained. In one area, there are two sets of stairs – one for officers, the other for servants.
One of the most striking examples of the way Mantle has retained the building’s history can be found in, of all places, the gents’ lavatories.
“We didn’t repoint all the old tiles,” says Guy. “There’s a bit of graffiti in one of the loos that looks like it was written by an American airman in the war, being disparaging about Hitler.”
Mantle created a new mechanical and electrical services system for the building, distributing services under the floor, which can be accessed by lifting trap doors in the corridors.
These corridors link the two wings to the central area – a standard design familiar to fighter bases developed in the 1930s.
“The idea was that if it got bombed, not all of it would get hit,” explains Guy.
The Billiard Room and Card Room provide light, airy meeting spaces.
At the Ante Room, Guy says: “This is where Douglas Bader used to have a drink. The IWM didn’t want us to knock this around or carve it up so we’ve let it to an individual tenant.”
Publisher Elsevier is at work in the Ante Room, which includes some standing-up desks – a modern office concept in a historic setting.
Further along the corridor is the large dining room, where the king and queen once dined during the war.
Ista Energy Solutions, which provides energy management services to businesses, is about to take over the space.
“When I first came to visit it, this was crammed with a mish-mash of artefacts,” says Guy. “You could walk down the middle of the dining room and on each side piled high was a range of things, like munitions cases, model aircraft and a U-boat cot bed.
“There was a carver chair labelled ‘Surrender chair’. It was one of the chairs used when the Japanese signed the surrender on an aircraft carrier in the States.”
The IWM removed the artefacts before Mantle began work.
Our tour concludes back in the Heart, the central space that underwent the biggest transformation.
“Historically, it had lots of little rooms with storage and kitchens. At some point, it got knocked down and it was a very dingy internal courtyard,” explains Guy.
“Our heritage architects, Cowper Griffith in Whittlesford, came up with a scheme for a light touch refurbishment but also created what we think is a great space.”
Additional desks and booths will soon be brought into the Heart – another example of how Mantle’s business centres are designed to offer spaces for businesses from one-person start-ups to more established SMEs.
“It’s a new way of offering small companies who need quality accommodation the right facilities in the right location in the right quantity,” says Guy. “The premise with flexible serviced accommodation is you don’t have to rent a meeting room full-time. You can use it as you need it. You don’t have to pay rent on reception or have your own receptionist.
“You can use as much or as little of these services as you want, which keeps things very focused and helps our customers grow.
“You can stay 10 minutes or 10 years or anything in between. You can have shared space, your own small office or larger office, and we offer a virtual office – an email address, we’ll collect your post and you can meet your customers but you don’t necessarily need to occupy an office here.
“It’s a customer-care business. Our customers are small, dynamic, growing businesses and their needs change over time. It’s very different to traditional lettings.
“Look at us – we have grown from five or six people in 2007 to 30 people now and if we’d taken a 10-year lease it wouldn’t have worked.”
Mantle was launched by Guy in January 1990, initially focusing on development and investment opportunities around Stansted, arising from the growth of the airport.
“It’s a family business,” says Guy. “Initially my father was involved. He’s now passed away but my younger brother Jamie joined the company in 1997, having worked in the city and in Japan.
“Since 2007, we’ve developed a specialism as an owner, creator and operator of serviced office business centres.”
The first was at Thremhall Park in Stansted, where records date back to the 11th century.
“There was a very interesting former Franciscan priory. It was obliterated at the Dissolution of the Monasteries and subsequently a Georgian house with walled gardens and Victorian extensions was built.
“It was the officers’ mess for Stansted when it was occupied by the Americans during the war.”
In 2005-06 Mantle refurbished it as a business centre and it became head office.
“It involved an awful lot of archaeology,” recalls Guy. “We had to try and find the old priory, which we did. The footings of the priory are under our main office and we protected those.”
Mantle now also has centres at CB1 in Cambridge and Elizabeth House in Chelmsford and will soon be opening its fifth at King’s Court, Stevenage, and looking for further opportunities in Liverpool Street, London.
“When we are looking at an opportunity, the key ingredients for us are location, accessibility and the internal configuration. We want to be able to create a large number of small office suites so long, thin buildings with lots of natural light are good.”
It’s a formula to which the Officers’ Mess at Duxford has proved ideally suited since it opened in 2015.
Earlier this year, it won the BCO Refurbished/Recycled Workplace award for Central and Eastern England, and narrowly missed out on the national award this month.
“We have more than 200 desks and at any one time we would expect occupancy between 80-90 per cent,” says Guy.
“For us, the key is the quality of the customer care experience that people get when dealing with our staff. We regard that as a differentiator and we tend to retain people.”
As centre manager Helen Earl says: “They like the sense of history and that we’ve celebrated who was here previously. It’s modern in its function but we’ve kept the history.”
You sense that those who once called this home would have approved.