A campaign to preserve Biggin Hill St George’s RAF Chapel of Remembrance

The S&G doesn’t often get involved in campaigning, but the collective goat has been grottled and our dander has been dumbfounded with news that Biggin Hill St. George’s Chapel of Remembrance is facing partial demolition among numerous other indignities. There is not much to be added to the text of the petition, so feel free to read it below or scoot straight through to the petition here.

Regular visitors to the S&G will know that the official history of the Battle of Britain, as described in such colourful terms by Winston Churchill in 1940 and propagated for the 77 years that have followed, is open to a degree of question. In the eyes of the pilots in front line squadrons, the 14-week period through which the most intense air battles were fought over southern England, encapsulated by Churchill as the ‘Battle of Britain’, was simply part of an ongoing campaign that lasted from May 1940 to May 1941 and from which no decisive result between Britain and Germany could be claimed.

The Battle of Britain was not simply a story of clean-limbed boys climbing into Spitfires and Hurricanes to ‘see off the Jerries’ but it also involved almost every facet of the military, from Bomber Command pounding away at the German infrastructure to achieving aircraft production on an unprecedented scale to having the Home Fleet of the Royal Navy as the trump card: a force 10 times stronger than that of the entire German Kriegsmarine that could and would have obliterated any attempted a sea invasion.

For all that, the importance of that period is not open to interpretation, and is deserving of its place in our history. Britain did not capitulate to the tyranny that was being unleashed upon mainland Europe. It did not meekly accept Hitler’s offer of retaining control of its Empire in exchange for Nazism being enforced at home. Ultimately, the Battle of Britain helped to convince America to abandon its policy of laissez-faire – at best – towards Nazism and ultimately to bring its industrial and military might to help reclaim Western Europe.

If one were to look up the word ‘unprepossessing’ in an illustrated dictionary, a view of the RAF Chapel of Remembrance at Biggin Hill would most likely be lying in wait. It’s a bland, artless red brick thing. But it exists for a reason, and should not be troubled by the passage of time.

Given that very little has happened at Biggin-on-the-Bump without the approval of Bernie Ecclestone for the past few decades, perhaps it would be as well to simply drop a note round to Princes Gate. So many outwardly unexciting buildings in the area actually have a wealth of history to them and to deface one, or start charging fees to see it, would inevitably set precedents that might lay waste to this whole area in historical terms.

Here is the petition:

The London Borough of Bromley Council’s current planning application necessitates demolition of the Grade II Listed Vestry, which houses the Air Crew Association stained glass window. Also it requires change of use of part of the Nave (the St George’s Room) to provide additional space for the new museum, the overall design of which the vast majority of genuinely concerned people find appalling – an ultra modern, stark structure enveloping two sides of the Chapel.

Under these proposals, visitors to the Chapel will no longer be able to view the St George’s Room with its commemorative stained glass windows, including the St George’s Battle of Britain Memorial Window, without paying the predicted museum charge of £7.50.

A Museum is long awaited at Biggin Hill, but the situation is incredible because there is an existing highly praised approved design, by the Biggin Hill Battle of Britain Supporters Club, which in no way affects the Chapel, but could provide the same level of support and with vastly superior facilities at lower predicted cost. Importantly it doesn’t require the closure of the Chapel during the building works.

The new Council design will require the closure of the Chapel to visitors, also for services and the funerals of Veterans for over a year whilst building works take place. This was highlighted to great effect at the recent St George’s Day Service, when a 95 year old RAF Veteran, proudly wearing his Air Crew Association tie, rose to his feet and announced his days were numbered and he wanted his funeral to be in the Chapel and his ashes placed in the Garden of Remembrance. But he could not die to order, how could they consider closing the Chapel for over a year?!

Since starting this petition, the previously stated total closure of the Garden of Remembrance on Health and Safety grounds has been reviewed.

Other than those in the immediate locality of Biggin Hill, the many other interested parties, including ex-RAF personnel, and relatives worldwide of those commemorated, are in ignorance of these distressing plans!

My previous advice to visit the Chapel is no longer relevant as the London Borough of Bromley has now CLOSED THE CHAPEL TO VISITORS. People arriving from a distance, perhaps even from overseas, will find the gates chained, at present with no explanation!

Please direct your comments on the closure to the Trust’s email address: hello@bhmm.org.uk

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Historic Motorsport International

Londoners tend to treat motor sport as something that pro-Brexit hillbillies from the countryside are interested in. This is a grave error on their part, which is being addressed this weekend at the inaugural Historic Motorsport International, which is part of the annual Classic Car Show at London’s ExCeL.

Yesterday the event was opened by Jacky Ickx, winner of eight Formula 1 grands prix, six Le Mans 24 Hours, the Bathurst 1000 and the Paris-Dakar rally, to name but a few achievements in a career that is, by any standards, rather special. Apparently, Jacky never considered motor sport to be a viable career and wanted to work in horticulture as a lad – at which point compère Henry Hope-Frost invited him over for a few laps of the lawn with his ride-on mower.

“Honestly, Henry, you can’t afford it!”

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Amid such good cheer the gleaming paintwork was admired, the dazzling array of products and services was digested and many an interesting confab occurred. The ExCeL is a sea of wheels and oils and panel shapers and engine fettlers – all with a display of their wares to be found and dribbled over .

Of particular note was a panel discussion on the eligibility of historic cars and policing the numerous ways in which owners will try and gain an unfair advantage.

Let’s be frank: if you can afford to own and drive a historic racing car then you’re not the sort of person who likes finishing second. At anything. And if you’ve also spent a small fortune on hospitality with which to entertain and impress people, you want to finish in front. Which means that all sorts of clever engineering is being funded, from high performance Honda pistons in a Mini-Cooper to traction control on a Jaguar E-Type.

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The effect that this is having upon the sport is potentially profound. Are fans being cheated? Do they care? Is it dangerous? Can the circuits cope? What about insurance? The session was led by former Le Mans winner and GT impresario Jürgen Bärth, who now tries to keep order over such matters on behalf of the FIA Historic Commission. The result? Inconclusive.

There are so many variables to consider – not least the quality of the drivers. Some owners will only drive themselves, with variable results, while others will happily pay a young up-and-coming hotshoe or veteran professional to get in and have a thrash. Equally some cars that were race winners are now worth eight-figure sums and driven with a degree more caution than more modest equipment of less value.

It made for a fascinating conversation revealing sufficient parameters and variables to make one’s head spin. Results were inconclusive, save for all scrutineers pledging to be more rigorous when Adrian Newey’s name appears on the entry list!

Still more such discussions were to be had for event promoters, driving standards officials and other key elements behind the organisation of historic motor sport events. All of them raised strong points and were well worth the asking price. How big can events become? How many events can the global calendar sustain at the present time? How can owners be tempted to keep bringing these cars out when their value increases by telephone numbers each year?

Now, though, the show has kicked fully into public mode, it can be enjoyed at leisure. There’s even a very suitable bar for yarning further about the why’s and wherefore’s of running a historic motor race… the cheeky beggars!

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So get on down to the ExCeL, it’s February and there’s nothing happening on track for months to come so why not make the most of what is a very entertaining weekend. Here’s a little preview of what’s in store…

The view from Stow Maries

Word has come in from the outposts of S&G territory – in this case, Essex – of some wonderful goings-on. In this instance it is the restoration of a First World War Airfield to full working order at Stow Maries.

This little patch of farmland, located between the seaside town of Malden and the county town of Chelmsford, is home to some buildings that were erected a century ago for a very particular purpose. These fields were once a hive of activity during the defence of London in the First World War, after marauding Zeppelins became a regular menace during 1915 and the massed daylight bombing raids of Gotha aircraft swept Britain into a state of hysteria.

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The attacking Gotha bombers photographed over London

In September 1916, the hastily-built airfield at Stow Maries received the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2s of ‘B’ Flight of 37 (Home Defence) Squadron. The favoured route for German raiders was to make landfall on the Essex coast and then cruise down towards Epping Forest in the knowledge that within minutes their bombs would fall near something valuable.

The first commanding officer at the aerodrome was Lieutenant Claude Ridley, who was only 19 years of age. On the evening of 23/24 May 1917 Ridley, promoted to Captain, and Lieutenant G. Keddie made the first recorded operational flight from the aerodrome in response to a large Zeppelin raid targeting London.

Air defence was in its infancy and for every Zeppelin brought down in a sea of falling flame there were hundreds of hours spent by pilots tootling around in the dark. Often they had to light flares on the end of their wings to see the runway on final approach. It was dark and dangerous work but ultimately something of a footnote in the history of the conflict.

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Alone in the great big sky: the solitary life of Home Defence flying re-created

Not that this precluded the growth of Stow Maries, which soon saw ‘A’ Flight of 37 Squadron arrive alongside the rest of the unit. It was a busy time for London and, during the early hours of 17 June 1917, 2nd Lieutenant L. P. Watkins was credited with the downing of Zeppelin L48 at Theberton in Suffolk – the last Zeppelin brought down on British soil before the arrival of the fixed-wing Gotha bombers.

It was these massed daylight raids that caused pandemonium in the capital, and 37 Squadron was in the thick of the action on 7 July 1917 when 22 Gotha bombers made one of the heaviest raids on London. The combination of unreliable engines, numerous landing accidents and increasingly effective Home Defence – not only from the aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service but also the anti-aircraft batteries ringing London – took a heavy toll on the daylight raiders. Soon they were compelled to fly at night and in smaller groups.

At its peak, Stow Maries was home to 219 staff and 16 aircraft – centred around all three flights of 37 (Home Defence) Squadron, ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. It’s original B.E.2 aircraft were replaced first with the B.E.12 and, much later, with the Sopwith Camel.

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Both inside and out, Stow Maries is returning to former glories

Unlike other Home Defence stations which were further developed and would win fame in the later Battle of Britain in 1940 – Biggin Hill, Manston and Hornchurch in particular – Stow Maries reverted to peacetime farming soon after the Armistice of 1918. After 37 Squafton’s departure in March 1919, its buildings were abandoned and forgotten about until a group of enthusiasts happened upon them and discovered what amounted to the only preserved World War 1 airfield in existence.

In the space of four years between 2007 and 2011, six of these buildings were fully conserved and one partially conserved. The decades of neglect were brushed aside and the structures were restored with appropriate materials in accordance with their original construction and architectural detailing.

Now, after venturing down a rather rustic farm track, it is possible to walk into the world of 1917 where the volunteers have now restored the Ambulance Shed and Mortuary, the Blacksmith’s Shed, the Workshop and Dope Shop and the NCO Mess. The Squadron Offices have now been rebuilt and house the museum, while the Workshop and Dope Shop have been conserved to comply with modern workshop environment conditions, but behind the modern internal wall finish is the original fabric untouched.

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Fixtures, fittings and the occasional bit of hardware can now be seen by visitors

Work is indeed undertaken on aircraft at Stow Maries – aircraft of 1914-18 vintage. In the only modern construction to be found at the site you will find hangared an assortment of tool-room copies of WW1 aircraft built by Sir Peter Jackson’s brilliant operation in New Zealand, The Vintage Aviator Ltd.

Recently, Stow Maries hosted its first fly-in for these magnificent aircraft, from where these photos have been provided. Complete with a supporting cast of re-enactors buzzing around the partially-restored Pilots’ Ready Room (the S&G collectively remains a little unsure about the value of re-enactors), the sights and sounds of aviation were laid out for the assembled hordes.

The Bristol Scout, Albatros D.V, and Sopwith Snipe encapsulated the progress made in aircraft design in 1916-18, while the B.E.2 was utterly at home on the field from which 37 Squadron campaigned the type so vigorously against the bombers. It is an amazing sight to see the facilities and the machines in an environment all-but unchanged in a century, and long may the good folk who have brought Stow Maries back to life continue to offer the world such a unique insight into the war.

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There is still much work to be done, the roll-call of buildings requiring or undergoing conservation includes:

  • Office and Communications Room
  • Motor Transport Shed
  • Royal Engineers’ Workshop
  • Generator Hut
  • Reception/Headquarters Building

If there is the will, the energy and the funding available, a further 14 buildings may yet also be saved to complete the restoration, these being:

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  • Officers’ Mess
  • Officers’ Quarters (four buildings)
  • Men’s Accommodation Block
  • NCO Accommodation
  • WRAF Accommodation (three buildings)
  • Water Tower and Reservoir (two buildings)
  • Fuel Store
  • Ammunition Store

To find out more about the airfield, the aircraft, when and how to visit and for news on forthcoming events please visit the website of this remarkable undertaking.

The Scarf & Goggles Awards

A whiff of the original Scarf & Goggles made a return to Silverstone this summer, in the form of a small but perfectly formed bar set on the Village Green at the Silverstone Classic.

The Scarf and Goggles bar at the 2015 Silverstone Classic

This year’s running of the event carried with it a celebration of 25 years since Silverstone first premiered its International Historic Festival, the first event of its kind in Britain that brought together marque clubs, autojumbles, live music and period family entertainment from the 1920s-1960s to support a full race card of historic action.

Today, the world is a very different place. The old Festival went into hiatus during the dark days of Octagon’s reign at Silverstone, during which time the Goodwood Festival of Speed and Revival meetings kicked into high gear and ensured an unprecedented level of success.

In 2015, the classic racers gathering for Silverstone's festival are of a later generation

In 2015, the classic racers gathering for Silverstone’s festival are of a later generation

As a result of this, when Nick Wigley and the guys and girls of Goose reimagined Silverstone’s original prestige event as the Classic, they sought to get away from Goodwood’s cast iron grip on all things tweed and British Racing Green. Thus the Silverstone infield now throngs with Nissan Skylines and 1980s BMWs rather than Aston Martin Ulsters and Bugattis – but it is indeed a thriving place, dedicated towards the finer things of the past 40 years.

Of course it is rather galling to see the cars with which one’s own career has been associated being shown off like brachiosaurus bones to an incredulous new generation. “This is a Vauxhall Vectra BTCC car, son,” said a chap near me in the paddock. “Years ago, John Cleland and the BTCC were the best things ever…”

Internally the S&G was screaming: Arrrrgh! Hold on! There’s JC over there and he hasn’t aged a day since 1999. Which was only five minutes ago, wasn’t it?

Oh well… Despite being made to feel rather venerable, there was some cracking racing to enjoy, not least from the Sixties GTs. A four-way duel for the lead in Saturday’s race between a TVR, a Cobra and two Jaguar E-Types boiled down to a ripping tussle between the Cobra and the faster Jag, the former boiling out of every corner on opposite lock while the ladylike E-Type darted around daintily looking for a way past.

The racing highlight was this duel for classic GT glory

The headline event was an hour-long race for Group C cars, running at dusk for maximum headlight glare and exhaust gas flare. The entry was a little thinner than hoped – it seems that the cost of running these 240mph beasts is becoming a burden – but the quality was superb, with the early race battle between the F1-powered Jaguar XJR-14 and the turbocharged Nissan R91CK being worth the entry fee alone.

Glorious Group Cs remain the crowd favourite

Your scribe’s vote for car of the day went to the unique EMKA Aston Martin, vintage 1985 and driven in period by a young Tiff Needell (actually, scratch that… Tiff was never young!)

However, the inaugural Scarf & Goggles Award for the Most Admired Car at the event, named after and presented by Stuart Graham, who created the racing spectacle of the Historic Festival 25 years ago, went elsewhere. It was deservedly claimed by the unique 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO ‘Breadvan’ owned by Martin Halusa and raced in the Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy for Historic Cars by his sons Niklas and Lukas.

Nick Wigley (centre) flanked by Janet Garton and Stuart Graham as they prepare to award the inaugural Scarf & Goggles awards

The second Scarf & Goggles Award was for the best off-track attraction or entertainment and named after my father, Mervyn Garton.

After some to-ing and fro-ing on the judging panel between a number of marque clubs, this was eventually presented by my mother to the RAF Benevolent Fund. These chaps built a unique display of a full-sized replica Spitfire that they spent all day sitting people in and describing life in World War 2, plus a host of vehicles that are lovingly tended by the team in their off-duty hours.

As a display, the RAFBF completely embodied the sort of attraction that Dad sought to bring to the event. They are a credit to the RAF and to the men and women their efforts do so much to support in their hours of need.

The winners who created the RAF Benevolent Fund area pose with their deservedly-won trophy

It was a wonderful and nostalgic event, with its future becoming increasingly clear. Status Quo was the headline act onstage this year but the possibilities are limitless – Haircut 100, Matt Bianco, Sade and the Happy Mondays among them. There could be Soda Stream bars and a video rental shop servicing the campsites, offering VHS or Betamax versions of favourite movies like Crocodile Dundee and Pretty Woman for adults and He-Man for the kids.

Personally I’d add a 1978-1988 invitational Formula Ford race for good measure, Pat Sharp’s Funhouse live action TV show on the Village Green and a New Romantic ballroom on Saturday night.

A very fetching MG Metro - typical of the new generation of classics drawn to Silverstone

A very fetching MG Metro – typical of the new generation of classics drawn to Silverstone

Goodwood may well have mopped up the 1940s to 1960s, but if you are someone who sighs wistfully for lurid Benetton polo shirts, stonewashed jeans, mechanics with mullet hairdos and the days when British Touring Cars gave F1 a run for its money then the Silverstone Classic is an unmissable occasion.

Here’s to 2016…

One legend among many at Le Mans

Maison Blanche today – walled off from the modern circuit but still full of charisma

The Circuit de la Sarthe is one of the few active circuits in the world with more than 100 years of history under its belt and, in the Le Mans 24 Hours, it is without doubt home to the world’s most famous motor race.

Like all the great circuits, it has evolved through the decades – but its spirit is entirely untouched. That indefinable thing that makes Le Mans special has been jealously preserved by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest against much of the ‘progress’ that has afflicted other classic venues. Indeed, this race couldn’t – and arguably shouldn’t – happen anywhere else in the world. But since the country that created Grand Prix racing fell off the Formula One calendar, the Grand Prix de l’Endurance at Le Mans has taken on still greater importance in the national psyche.

As far as the circuit goes the one real concession to safety standards over the years has been the abandonment of the run through Maison Blanche, which once provided as stern a test as any to be found in motorsport. On today’s Circuit de la Sarthe cars exit the banked left-hand turn at Indianapolis and right-hander at Arnage and then have a quick squirt before turning sharp right into the vast chicane known as the Porsche Curves.

This track map shows the old, flowing circuit passing beneath the sinuous Porsche Curves

This track map shows the old, flowing circuit passing beneath the sinuous Porsche Curves

This is the only section of track that really resembles a modern Grand Prix venue – with its acres of gravel and run-off (although it is still somewhere that gigantic accidents can and do happen). All of that takes place on the other side of a wall that would not have looked out of place in Potsdamer Platz during the 1970s – and it means that the historic Maison Blanche section is there to explore at any time one might fancy doing so.

The old Maison Blanche on the left of shot and the new Porsche Curves to the right

The old Maison Blanche on the left of shot and the new Porsche Curves to the right

After arriving for the full modern Le Mans experience, the S&G found an opportunity to do a little motoring on the original circuit. The public roads that make up so much of a lap at Le Mans – from Tertre Rouge up the full length of the Mulsanne straight being the N138 to Tours, for example – remain open for as long as possible, giving one the opportunity to recreate that fantastic film of Mike Hawthorn’s lap in 1956.

This is the fast, tree-lined run from the exit or Arnage curving gracefully over the crest that was lowered as a concession to safety after the 1955 disaster and which still exists just as Hawthorn described it in his film. One then keeps barrelling downhill until just past the right-hand diversion into the Porsche Curves, where a roundabout now breaks what was once the long, long run towards the start/finish straight.

From the roundabout (which offers the main route in for the majority of the infield car parking at the 24 Hours), one then accelerates through the gentle right-hand kink up towards the fabled left-right around the old White House itself, visible on the left in this video, before the old circuit runs out and the Berlin-style wall cuts one off before rejoining the modern start-finish straight.

Impressions of driving down this stretch are primarily that it’s bloody narrow. Whether at 80mph in a Bentley 3-litre, 140mph in a Jaguar D-Type or 190mph in a Porsche 917 it would require superhuman courage at any time of day… never mind what it must have been like at night in the rain – as was so often the case.

Visiting Le Mans is essential to make one’s motoring life complete. Drinking in the sights and sounds of the 24 Hours is enough of a feast in itself, but when there is the opportunity to go and explore such riches as Maison Blanche at the same time, it becomes quite the most amazing location of its kind in the world.

On the Goodwood High Street…

It’s the place to come and see and be seen – and in the absence of We Heart Vintage at this year’s revival, the S&G stepped manfully into the breach to record the best and brightest of what everyone was doing out on the replica High Street. Were you shopping in the vintage Tesco or posing at the Shell garage? Why not relive the life, laughs and Lambrettas for a while with this here gallery, like…

Goodwood Revival Air Displays

The aircraft element of this year’s Goodwood Revival was in some ways more prominent than usual, with the Freddie March Spirit of Aviation concours being dedicated to Battle of Britain aircraft in anticipation of the former RAF Westhampnett becoming the focal point of national commemorations for the 75th anniversary. What this meant was an abundance of Spitfires, a smattering of Hurricanes and the lone Bristol Blenheim standing in all their glory on the airfield to be enjoyed up close by the visitors to the event.

In the air, however, the pall of nearby Shoreham still hung heavily over proceedings. The flying elements – a daily ‘Dawn Patrol’, scheduled flyovers by the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and performances by aircraft stationed at Goodwood for the weekend – were little more than gentle circuits that dipped down over the runway before climbing out to perform another circuit. The only non-WW2 aircraft scheduled to perform, the Avro Vulcan bomber, did not appear due to a technical fault in the landing gear.

The only opportunity provided for a proper air display was over the cricket match on Thursday night, during which a spectacular display was put on by the lone Spitfire. Elsewhere through the weekend, the heroes of the show were the Old Flying Machine Company’s pair of movie stars – Supermarine Spitfire Mk.IX MH434, a stalwart of the Revival, and P-51D Mustang Ferocious Frankie.

MH434 is the only flying Spitfire to have never been fully restored. She was first flown by aviation aces, securing an enviable record in WWII, before the late Ray Hanna, a founder member of the RAF Red Arrows, bought her as the anchor of his historic flying circus, the Old Flying Machine Company.

Ray’s exploits in MH434 remain legendary, including the famous ‘buzz’ of Alain de Cadenet, flying down the start/finish straight at Goodwood lower than the pit garage roof and flying through the Winston Bridge in County Durham for a scene in the TV adaptation of Derek Robinson’s Piece of Cake. This latter appearance was one of many film roles to date such as A Bridge Too Far, The Longest Day, Hope & Glory and Battle of Britain.

In her regular position alongside MH434, P-51D Mustang Ferocious Frankie also drew admiring glances. Frankie also had an enviable war career, followed by second place overall in the Reno air races. Since she was added to the Old Flying Machine Company stable, the Mustang has become another movie regular with roles in Saving Private Ryan, Memphis Belle, Hart’s War and an iconic presence in Stephen Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.

The other pair working the line at Goodwood was The Fighter Collection’s pair of Curtiss Hawks. A novelty for many, the Curtiss Hawk 75 is the only airworthy example of the Curtiss P-36 lineage left anywhere in the world. Flying in the colours of the French Armee de l’Air, she was joined by one of only two P-40F fighters still airworthy, the sole Hawk type to be fitted with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.

Of course the highlight of the weekend for many was the flypast by 12 Hurricanes and Spitfires. And it was great – not least thanks to the presence of war veterans now well into their tenth decade, the backdrop of film and speech and music and the general level of reverence being offered up before the aircraft swooped in.

All in all, it was done very well indeed.