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Wonders of the Western Group World: 6 Why racing started at Castle Combe
publication date: Feb 7, 2014
author/source: Dave Moss
by Dave Moss
Today, Whitchurch is a pleasant semi-rural village and home to around a thousand people and who probably know little about its sometimes secretive past.
Its on the main A37 road, four miles south of the city of Bristol, and boasts a pub, a primary school, community centre, two churches, a general store and various businesses.
It also hides a special secret from a long time ago, for on the village's north-west fringe was once a vitally important aerodrome, the story of which began in 1927. In that year the Bristol and Wessex Aeroplane Club arranged a public meeting to promote private flying in the Bristol area: its said that 85 members initially signed up, allowing the purchase of two aircraft, which took part in a summer flying display at Filton aerodrome
Then at the heart of the west country's fast growing aviation industry, Filton couldn't provide a permanent home, so the club entered a partnership to establish a new municipal airfield near Whitchurch, where Bristol Corporation reportedly purchased 290 acres of farmland for around £15,000.
In return, the club gained use of the airfield, and took responsibility for its operation and management.
Whitchurch Airport was officially opened by Prince George, later Duke of Kent, on the 31 May 1930, becoming Britain's third municipally owned airport, joining Croydon, and Heston in Middlesex.
Press reports suggest the international air show to launch the Whitchurch venture attracted almost 30,000 spectators - though in the first operational year under 1000 passengers actually passed through.
Nonetheless the airport began growing, gaining international customs facilities and an aircraft maintenance centre. Training and private flying dominated the early years, but in 1936 the club secured a new 21 year lease, and the City Corporation assumed overall management.
Some scheduled UK and channel-hopping services soon followed, flown by aircraft such as the twin-engined 10 seater DH Dragon Rapide bi-plane. In 1939, before the outbreak of war, the airport handled about 4000 passengers.
All private flying ceased when war was declared, and Whitchurch was quickly requisitioned by the Air Ministry. It soon became vital to the war effort - and extremely busy because of its strategic location and status as one of very few British civil airports remaining open during the war.
Aircraft from around the country were dispersed here, amongst them the diverse fleets of Railway Air Services and Imperial Airways, with HP42, Ensigns, the DH Albatross and Flamingo and four-engined Armstrong-Whitworth Ensign airliners all frequent visitors. In 1941, a hard-surface 3048ft runway and associated taxiways were built and new hangars constructed, and the Bristol Aeroplane Company began on-site engine maintenance.
Whitchurch became the wartime operational base for Air Transport Auxiliary No 2 Ferry Pool, which provided military "air taxi" services, and also transferred RAF aircraft around the country.
Many aircraft types were seen in wartime at Whitchurch, but a particularly common sight was the 'Dakota' DC3 airliner: contemporary reports suggest that by 1944 at least 50 were based there.
Many comings and goings were nonetheless shrouded in secrecy, especially the arrivals and departures of personnel on the service operated by KLM Dutch airlines to Lisbon - and flights to Foynes, the Irish seaplane base which gave connections to the USA. Rumour suggests Amy Johnson and Winston Churchill both used Whitchurch during the war, and one enduringly intriguing mystery remains unsolved.
On 1 June 1943, BOAC flight 777, a Douglas DC3 inbound from Lisbon, was shot down over the bay of Biscay by a Luftwaffe squadron, with the loss of all 17 on board. Amongst them was actor and "Gone with the Wind" star Leslie Howard (right), thought by many then and since to have worked for British Intelligence. Seventy years on, sporadic speculation over why Howard was on that flight continues - but whether his plane was deliberately targeted is a mystery which resurfaced in the British press as recently as 2008.
The Bristol and Wessex Aeroplane Club continued operations from Whitchurch when civil flying recommenced in January 1946, and BOAC briefly maintained a presence.
But enthusiasm and demand for airline links was lukewarm in an era of post-war austerity, and though Cardiff-based Cambrian airways had begun some services by 1953, Whitchurch languished under-utilised - as the coming of the jet age heralded rapid changes in aviation involving bigger aircraft - needing longer runways.
Though Whitchurch had coped before the war, the surrounding topography wasn't ideal and new post-war housing was encroaching to the east and north, limiting runway extension possibilities.
Filton and RAF Lulsgate Bottom were put first forward by the Ministry as possible alternative locations for Bristol's civil airport in 1947, after RAF Lulsgate's closure.
The Bristol light car club held motor races on this station's runways in 1949 and April 1950, but difficulties over continued permission for racing forced their move to the recently defunct RAF training aerodrome at Castle Combe, where the rest, as they say, is history.
Eventually, in 1955 Bristol corporation spent £55,000 purchasing Lulsgate Bottom with its 3900ft main runway, and the Duchess of Kent duly opened the new Bristol Lulsgate airport in May 1957. The runway was extended to 7500 ft in 1963, and the site remains operational today - as Bristol International.
Whitchurch was officially de-requisitioned in July 1956 - and closed to aircraft on 13 April 1957. A couple of car and motorcycle race meetings took place in 1959, but the site was then developed for industrial use, becoming known as Hengrove Park. Its last aviation link vanished when Bristol Aircraft Engines' maintenance facility closed in 1971, and today the principal occupier is a complex with hotel, multi-screen cinema, restaurant and pubs, one of which nods towards the past through its name - 'The Wessex Flyer.'
There's an altogether bigger testament to history behind this vast complex however, where almost half of the main Whitchurch runway remains - a silent, unmarked witness to a much more active past now almost a lifetime ago.