On a gloriously warm day with a cloudless blue sky we headed off to Brooklands, the birthplace of British motorsport, aviation and the home of Concorde. After a pitstop in the nostalgic Sunbeam Café inside the original Brooklands Clubhouse we had time for a quick look around before we were split into two groups of 10 for our guided tours.
We learnt that after a motoring tour to Italy in 1905, in which they attended the Coppa Florio road race event, wealthy landowner Hugh Locke King and his wife, Ethel, realised that Great Britain was falling behind the Continent in car racing. As a commercial opportunity as well as for patriotism they decided on the construction of a revolutionary purpose-built motor racing circuit and test track on his large inherited estate at Weybridge.
For the highest possible speeds and greatest safety the circuit had two huge banked sections on the 100ft-wide concrete track. Many speed records were set on both two wheels and four. Brooklands became the centre of motor racing in Britain and the venue welcomed the exciting new motor industry.
Within the circuit an airfield was soon established, spectators witnessing some great moments in the pioneering days of powered flight. In 1914 the Royal Flying Corps took over the site, and aircraft by Avro, Sopwith, Vickers and others were flown and developed. Over the years Brooklands witnessed the first flights of many famous British aircraft and was the site of many engineering and technological achievements for eight decades.
The first British Grand Prix was held in 1926. The 500-mile race of 1929 was the fastest long-distance race in the world. Racing legends on display included the 1933 silver 24-litre Napier-Railton, the fastest car to lap the 2.7-mile Brooklands Outer Circuit. In all, the great car broke 47 records.
The Clubhouse, Paddock and Members’ Bridge attracted a social dimension and with civil air displays and pleasure flights gave summer weekends at the venue a unique garden party atmosphere of gymkhanas and tea dances. Racing continued here until 1939. During the Second World War the Vickers-Armstrong and Hawker aircraft companies had exclusive use of the site for military aircraft production. Over 3,000 Hawker Hurricanes, Britain’s most successful fighter aircraft of this period, were produced at Brooklands.
We were led to the Aircraft Factory where in pride of place a restored Vickers Wellington Mk1A bomber was on display. It was designed and built at Brooklands using the geodetic construction principles developed by Barnes Wallis, from his airship design experience, which gave it a flexible design also capable of absorbing heavy damage. One of over 2,500 built at Brooklands, this particular aircraft had developed engine trouble in a blizzard when on a training flight in 1940 and had ditched in Loch Ness. It was rediscovered in remarkably good condition in 1976 by a team of ‘Nessie’ hunters and was successfully salvaged.
We then entered a building housing the massive Barnes Wallis Stratosphere Chamber which, as head of Vickers-Armstrong R&D department after the war, he designed and had built. At the far end of the engineering room was a huge door which slid sideways to the great chamber, used to replicate conditions at extreme altitude to investigate, at ground level, the environmental and mechanical problems caused by high-altitude flight. A sign proudly read “The worst weather in the world occurs in Weybridge. To order – blizzards, desert heat, driving rain, humidity and air twice as rare as the summit of Everest.” The chamber hosted research into supersonic aerodynamics that contributed to the design of Concorde, and tests with icy conditions included investigations to understand why several deep-sea trawlers were lost.
Sir Barnes Wallis, perhaps best known for inventing the bouncing bomb – codenamed Upkeep – used by the RAF in Operation Chastise to attack the dams of the Ruhr Valley, made many other contributions. Those on show included his Tallboy and Grand Slam deep penetration earthquake bombs.
After free time to explore the Flight shed and a lunch break came the highlight of our day: the Concorde Experience. After a pre-flight briefing on the world’s most famous aircraft we boarded, viewing a gallery showing Concorde’s history and a short film on the restoration project. We then took our seats for a virtual Concorde flight. An excellent video with Mike Bannister, British Airways chief Concorde pilot, talked us through the procedures and initial phases of flight and then, with a digital display showing us cruising at 50,000 feet at mach 2, we settled back and enjoyed superb footage of Concorde at speed to the uplifting music of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now.
Coming back down to earth it made us think how fast aviation has evolved since those early days of flight. Behind Concorde, much of which was built at Brooklands, were previous achievements: the Vickers Viking, Varsity, Viscount, Vanguard, VC10 and BAC 1-11, some of which were open for viewing.
There was also time to visit the London Bus Museum, home to the largest collection of working historic London buses in the world, McLaren supercars (including a full-sized one in Lego) plus many other attractions. Our grateful thanks went to the Days Out team, Deanne Rhodes and Sally Connett, for organising such a marvellous day as, all too soon for our departure, the chequered flag was waved.
Report and photos by Paul Smith