IT’S one of the estates that is a key part of Basingstoke – but not a lot of people actually know how Oakridge got its name.

According to Basingstoke borough councillor Mary Brian, it was named after Oak Ridge, in Tennessee, which for seven years was nicknamed Secret City.

Established in 1942, Oak Ridge was the base for The Manhattan Project, tasked with creating an atomic weapon, and was home to the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor.

The American city was not shown on maps and with armed guards posted at its entrances, special approval had to be given to visitors, while its 75,000 residents had to wear special badges at all times.

But it was a different story for Oakridge, which was built to house people who worked at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, in Aldermaston.

Mary explained: “A lot of people don’t realise that Oakridge is not named after a tree – it’s named after an atomic energy research establishment.

“Many thought we had a row of oak trees up on a ridge.

While we did have some trees, they were elms and they all died because of Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s.

“The estate was primarily built for AWRE workers, providing homes for scientists, technicians, electricians and there were people who worked in laboratories and engineers – all sorts of people.”

Among those people was Mary’s father, Tom Baptist, who arrived in Basingstoke in 1953. He was to serve as a councillor on Basingstoke Council for 16 years, and was mayor from 1964 to 1965.

“Dad was a laboratory worker who had worked at the research establishment in Woolwich Arsenal,” said Mary.

The original Oakridge estate was smaller than it is today, centring around the top half of Oakridge Road.

“The estate was completely surrounded by fields and was incredibly rural,” recalled Mary. “The only houses at the top of Oakridge Road was The Soldier’s Return, which was also a pub, and a couple of cottages.

“Normanton Road and Mullins Close were fields and Millard Close and Osborne Close was Merton Farm.”

Mary said that with people coming from as far as Scotland as well London to work at AWRE, it was a time of great upheaval and, in some cases, loneliness.

“Many missed their families back home, but at the same time it was a golden opportunity to make a new life,” said Mary.

“A lot came from London and were glad to come here because there was a housing shortage, and here many were able to have a home with their own bathrooms.

“I was about 18 at the time and at first I found it quite difficult living here. But it wasn’t long before many of us settled down and we were all saying we didn’t want to go back to London.”

It was soon decided that a community centre was required with AWRE providing a site at Upton Crescent and a large hut.

“It was formerly an RAF crews dormitory hut, which would have housed about 50 men,” said Mary. Members of the community, including my father, gave up some of their time to clear the site, put up the hut and built a stage in it.

“And then the community got together, and formed themselves into an association – and it’s still going strong today.”

Mary has many happy memories of the hut and its later incarnations, where a whole host of activities took place, from concerts, dances, bingo and where sport days were held, as well as being a base for organisations such as the Oakridge Ladies Choir.

Given the number of young mums on the estate, Mary and her sister Rita set up the Two O’Clock Club, which held afternoon and later evening meetings, organising events, competitions and outings.

“We started the club because there were a lot of very unhappy people, who missed the support of their families, and they felt they were stuck in the middle of nowhere.

“The club gave them something to do and some of these people became quite close friends and are probably still friends today.”

Recalling being offered a piano for the hall, Mary said: “We had to collect it from about two streets away. We decided we could wheel this piano to the hall and didn’t do too badly until we were nearly there, when one of the wheels fell off. There we were stuck with this piano. We managed to get some help from a friendly builder who was working nearby, who used his dumper truck to pick up the piano and get it to the hall.

“With some of his mates, he helped us get the piano up on stage. We had it tuned and it stayed there for years.”

Today, the current community hall is still well used and is known as the Oakridge West Community Centre, run by Oakridge West Community Association.

And thanks to some help from Mary’s daughter, Laura James, also a borough councillor, the hall has been given a new lease of life.

She helped campaign for the 1960s building to undergo a £30,000 refurbishment, and the official opening of the new-look hall took place earlier this month.

Delighted with the work and proud of her family connection with the hall, Laura said: “I remember as a child going to events there and we always had family parties there.

“My grandparents had their golden wedding there – that was a really big event and was attended by the mayor.

“I feel it’s very much an important part of the community that is well supported by the residents in the area."