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‘Historical Google Earth’ archive shows UK’s changing built environment

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The images, from as early as 1945, were taken by former wartime RAF pilots and have been made available online by Cambridge University.

Aerial photograph of Stokesay Castle, Shropshire

A collection of aerial photographs described as the “historical Google Earth” has been made available online by Cambridge University.

The images, from as early as 1945, were taken by former wartime RAF pilots at the instruction of Cambridge archaeologist JK St Joseph.

They chart how the UK’s built environment changed from the bomb-scarred post-war period, with the emergence of motorways, skyscrapers and modern cityscapes.

Aerial photograph made available online
Construction of the M25 near Grays Thurrock in Essex in 1979 (Cambridge University/PA)

Ancient landscapes were also photographed in Cambridge’s Committee for Aerial Photography project, with the most recent ones taken in 2009.

The first 1,500 photographs from an archive numbering almost 500,000 went live on a website on Friday.

Cambridge archaeologist Professor Martin Millett, who has frequently used the original photography in his research, said: “Anyone can go to Google Earth and look at modern satellite imagery – but this is an historical Google Earth that lets you travel back through time to a Britain which no longer exists.

Aerial photograph made available online
Aerial photo taken in June 1948 of Lynchets, Worth Matravers, Dorset (Cambridge University/PA)

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“In this first batch of photos, including some very early colour photography, we have cherry-picked some of the best and most beautiful images documenting the changing face of cities, towns and coastlines from all over the UK.

“Cambridge aerial photography was pioneering and unique. No-one else in the world was doing this – it was genuinely world-leading.

“Now, as a historical resource for researchers and the public using the Digital Library, it’s a vital and fascinating window into the past.

“Once this material is out there and available, it stimulates people to do things we haven’t even thought about yet.”

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The university borrowed RAF planes and pilots to take photographs until 1965 when it bought its own Cessna Skymaster.

The plane, based at Cambridge Airport, travelled the length and breadth of Britain to capture high-resolution archaeological detail from the air.

Aerial photograph made available online
1986 panorama of the River Thames – Bermondsey from Southwark Bridge (Cambridge University/PA)

Oxford academic Dr Robert Bewley, a world authority on aerial archaeology, described the collection as “internationally important”.

“St Joseph became a pioneer of air archaeology after his work analysing RAF reconnaissance photos during World War Two, and came to realise there was a huge opportunity to use similar photos in archaeology and geology,” he said.

“He chose former RAF bomber pilot Flight Lieutenant Derek Riley – who had been an archaeologist before the war – to take him on his first trip.

“In those days you could fly where you wanted with few restrictions and that’s exactly what they did.”

Aerial photograph made available online
Liverpool looking north-east in 1964 (Cambridge University/PA)

The Department of Geography and Cambridge University Library are exploring potential plans to digitise the remaining hundreds of thousands of photographs and negatives in the aerial photography archive.

The first images are available at Cambridge University’s Digital Library at cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk

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