Suffolk

The corner of England where the Stars and Stripes fly high

Jolene
Image caption Aspiring photographer Jolene Jeffers has swapped the "dry heat" of New Mexico for the more variable Suffolk climate

With its picturesque villages and quiet country lanes, the county of Suffolk embodies a vision of a certain kind of Englishness. Yet nestled away in its north-western corner lies a pocket of pure Americana, where the cars are huge, you can pay for a haircut in dollars and the Stars and Stripes flutter proudly.

The accent is unmistakably American.

The man, elderly, slightly hunched but with a freshly cut short-back-and-sides, hauls himself out of the black leather barber's chair and places some money in Steve Snazell's palm.

"Until next time," he says, heading out of the door with a sense of purpose honed from years in the military.

"He's a regular," says Mr Snazell, a second generation barber whose shop sits directly opposite the wired fence of RAF Mildenhall.

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Cuts R Us
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The American community was established here during World War Two and the years immediately afterwards when the US military coagulated into a crescent of RAF bases that stretch across southern England from Lakenheath in Suffolk to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire.

West Suffolk is home to both RAF Lakenheath and Mildenhall, with RAF Feltwell perched just over the Norfolk border to the north.

In the past seven decades, tens of thousands of US military personnel, their spouses and their children have set up home in this Suffolk enclave for postings lasting between two and four years.

The United States Air Force claims RAF Lakenheath and Mildenhall are worth a combined £700m ($910m) to the local economy. The influence of the American dollar stretches far and wide - from the local property rental market to the pubs and restaurants, where US patrons are noted for eating out earlier than their British counterparts.

About half of all Mr Snazell's customers are Americans - either those currently serving in the military, or retirees who have settled in the area.

The cost of a haircut is £8 - though Mr Snazell is equally happy to take payment in dollars ($12).

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Dollars accepted here
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One of the current batch of Americans living in the area is Jolene Jeffers, an aspiring photographer currently working for a car rental company.

She and husband Caleb, originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, are almost three years into a four-year posting. He works on the Lockheed C-130 Hercules at RAF Mildenhall.

"It is a different experience but still a really cool one," she says of life in west Suffolk.

"Sometimes I just want to go to Walmart at 03:00 for ice cream and socks, and you can't do that here.

"I miss home but it's amazing to be so close to London and to Paris.

"It's very small compared to what I'm used to, but Suffolk is so cosy and the people are so nice."

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Ros
Image caption British retiree Rosalind Hamill is working on a community garden project with the help of some American volunteers
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Such appreciation is reciprocated by retiree Rosalind Hamill, who is one of the thousands of British people to have made a living working on the bases.

"We've always worked together, the base and the local community," says Mrs Hamill, a West Row councillor who left school aged 15 to work at RAF Mildenhall.

"The young ones are so polite - it's all yes ma'am, no ma'am."

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Another local who has taken the American community to his heart is Terence Grinling.

He started on base as an electrical contractor before being made a permanent member of staff at RAF Mildenhall.

"I enjoyed every minute of it - so much so that when I reached retirement age I did an extra four years there."

As well as a living, the base gave him a son-in-law, Kenneth, from Ohio.

"He did not want to go back to the US and Hayley (Mr Grinling's daughter) did not want to leave," says the retiree. "So they settled here and live with my grandson William in Red Lodge."

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Terry Grinling
Image caption Terence Grinling spent years working for the US military. He is now father-in-law to an American serviceman
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American car
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Talk to people in this area of Suffolk and the conversation will at some stage invariably turn to cars.

Huge American Chevrolets, Fords and Chryslers are commonplace. But driving left-handed cars along Suffolk's often narrow winding lanes can prove problematic.

Terry James, who runs Mildenhall Car Sales, says many of the airmen pop into their showroom for advice about negotiating the county's roads.

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Terry James
Image caption Terry James's office pays homage to all things American (and a London bus outside the Palace of Westminster)
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As well as selling cars - nearly all automatic - to the Americans, Mr James's staff prepare US cars for the roads in the UK and for their MOTs.

But many Americans have an ulterior motive for visiting Mr James's car showroom: his dog, a velvety grey three-year-old Weimaraner called Charlie.

Most service personnel have to leave their pets at home and so for many Charlie has become a much-loved surrogate.

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Charlie the dog
Image caption Charlie, a Weimaraner, has become a surrogate pet for some people at the base
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Sylvia
Image caption Sylvia James says some service personnel come in simply to chat
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Terry's wife Sylvia says the airmen and their families feel a "strong sense of belonging" in their offices.

"Sometimes people just happen to come in here," she says. "We listen to them, we're here for them, even if it's just for a chat.

"We push the boat out and make an effort. You have to remember nothing is familiar to them here - even mince pies at Christmas time. They didn't know what they were."

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VAT free
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If you scratch beneath the surface, there is a sense of uncertainty about what the future holds for businesses reliant on the airbase.

In 2015, the USAF revealed it planned to pull out of RAF Mildenhall, RAF Alconbury and RAF Molesworth by 2020-23.

That decision is now reportedly being reviewed.

"If Mildenhall closes, we'd have to change our business model pretty sharpish," says Bill Flynn, the managing director of removals firm Safepac.

Half of the company's business involves moving American "members" - the term given to service families - back and forth across "the pond".

Each year they handle some 2,000 US house shipments. (If you have wondered how much the average family's possessions (excluding cars) weigh, Mr Flynn can tell you. It is about 4,000kg.)

"Service families are so used to moving, the old adage that moving house being the most stressful thing you do in your life doesn't apply to them", Mr Flynn says.

"We do everything you'd expect in a normal house move - we pack and wrap household possessions into crates, 10 crates to a container. We organise shipping them to America, where they can then face a couple of thousand miles by road."

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Bill
Image caption Businessman Bill Flynn is the son of a US serviceman who set up a removals firm in 1966
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The Presidents
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For those who do return to America, the pull of Suffolk can remain strong in the years after leaving.

Retired USAF major Steve Balkan runs a pizzeria in Rothsay in Minnesota but 13 years ago he was stationed at RAF Mildenhall.

"This was by far the best assignment in my whole air force career," he said.

"We love the Brits, the sense of humour. And the countryside around here is so beautiful.

"I've always wanted to come back and show the kids where they came from."

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American family
Image caption Steve Balkan with children (l to r) Reygan, Jacob and Chase
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RAF Mildenhall
  • Opened in 1934, RAF Mildenhall was made a joint operation USAF-RAF base in 1950. It was earmarked for closure in 2015
  • More than 4,000 US and UK nationals work at the base, with the USAF estimating it to be worth $331m (£219m) to the local economy in 2013-14
  • Nearby RAF Lakenheath is home to the USAF's 48th Fighter Wing. Control of the base transferred from the RAF to the USAF in 1948.
  • At RAF Lakenheath there are about 5,500 active-duty military members and 2,700 British and US civilians working on base

Photography by Laurence Cawley

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