A Concrete Proposal Brooklands Revival. The great restoration nears fruition. The historic surface of the Brooklands Finishing Straight is revealed. It’s a major step in the £8.1m project to revitalise this epicentre of early racing and aviation. Words John Simister. Photography Tim Andrew.
Archaeology, according to one definition, is the study of buried remains from an era before 1940. If that is true, then I am standing on a prime archaeological site, newly uncovered and full of discoveries. It’s made of concrete, mainly. The Romans invented concrete, but they didn’t deposit this particular layer. It was poured about a millennium-and-a-half after the Romans left, and visitors to the former motoring amphitheatre in Weybridge saw it first on 17 June 1907 and last, open to the elements, in November 1940.
What I’m standing on is a long-lost section of the Brooklands Finishing Straight. Motorracing gladiators hurtled off the southern banking at the end of their final lap and shot back along this broad straight, passing the Clubhouse and taking the flag to cheers from the crowd – the right crowd, of course, and no crowding. And precisely 110 years to the day from the first time it happened, in the most symbolic milestone yet in this revival of Brooklands, it will re-open at this summer’s Double Twelve meeting (17-18 June) and roar to the sounds of racing cars once again.
It all stopped, of course, when Britain had the Second World War to wage. Brooklands’ other big role was as a centre for aircraft pioneers, which grew into full-scale aircraft manufacture. And that had to expand with the demands of war; a new manufacturing hangar was needed, and the Finishing Straight offered an obvious site on which to build it.
Ever since then, up to 2016, the Wellington Hangar (a Bellman hangar named after the twin-engined, long-range bombers that were initially made there) has covered a good part of the Straight, a great big obstruction annihilating the old racetrack’s integrity. Now it has gone, and the track’s course is clear once again. Gone where? I’ll come to that.
The hangar was a big reason, along with other wartime incursions into the track’s fabric, why Brooklands didn’t regain its motor-racing role after the war. Instead it grew further as an aircraft manufacturing hub under owner Vickers, through reincarnations as the British Aircraft Corporation and, following the merger with Hawker Siddeley, British Aerospace.
Over the years, various bits of the estate were sold off. Cigarette company Gallaher, Tesco, Mercedes-Benz World, a modern business park called The Heights: all these and more occupy, or have occupied, the area bounded by the distorted-oval banked circuit through which runs the River Wey. What were mainly open spaces beyond the banking in 1907, when the track was completed, are now built up; if your Napier-Railton shot over the banking’s edge now, it might land in someone’s back garden.
Some of the banking has gone but the section at the north-eastern end, stretching from before the Finishing Straight and round to Mercedes- Benz World, is still there apart from one gap where the Wey bridge used to be. Another section curves past Tesco on the opposite end of the old track’s distorted oval, a monument reminding every shopper of what went on in the years before barcodes and three-for-two deals. The whole plan is very obvious on Google Earth; the car park for The Heights, for example, is built on the rest of the Straight, the part not within the Brooklands Museum’s piece of the estate.
The Brooklands Museum represents a fantastic act of survival. On its site are the Clubhouse, the paddock, period garages and workshops, the London Bus Museum, and various hangars containing historic aircraft, with some larger aeroplanes – a Concorde, a Vanguard, a Trident and a VC10, for example – parked outside. Automotive and motorcycling treasures abound, and the Test Hill, its gradient increasing the further it climbs, is intact and in regular use during the many classic car events.
For years the museum and these surroundings managed to escape developers’ clutches thanks to the efforts of enthusiasts and the local Elmbridge Council’s understanding of the site’s importance. In recent times the museum, nowadays run by a trust, has benefited from the financial help of Mercedes-Benz UK, which acquired the former airfield part of the site on which to build Mercedes-Benz World. It has proved a fine partnership, symbiotic even: historic car events can use the Mercedes test track laid out on the old runway and browse Mercs ancient and modern; petrol-blooded Mercedes visitors can cross the Vickers footbridge and see the museum’s treasures.
And for several years there has been a plan, a pan-Brooklands plan that ultimately brings together all with a stake in the site, its goal to protect it for future generations, to improve the museum and to make it a centre for knowledge, learning and skills. The museum’s director, and its most public face, is Allan Winn. Less visible is a team of trustees who organise, raise funds, deal with the legalities, build bridges. Plus, of course, the many volunteers who help run the museum and look after its treasures. The bottom line is that the museum’s plan, as currently detailed, still needs another £1m.
‘It’s an £8.1m project now,’ says Winn, as he explains how costs keep creeping up despite everyone’s best initial estimates. For example, the ground between the Finishing Straight and the newly built, impressively cavernous Flight Shed (with period-correct silhouette and authentic-looking corrugations) should slope at 45º down to the shed, because the Shed is on the level and the Straight is on a hill. Currently there’s 0a chasm.
‘We had to take out 8000 cubic metres of soil full of asbestos, industrial rubbish and bits of jigs. At the bottom were 1000 cubic metres of soil contaminated by hydrocarbons from half-a-dozen oil drums, which had rusted, plus 60,000 litres of oil-contaminated water. That added £275,000 to the project.’
‘WE COULD USE ALL THE BANKING AT THE NORTH END AND THE RAILWAY STRAIGHT BEYOND. THAT IS THE HOLY GRAIL’
‘VISITORS WILL BE ABLE TO CLOCK-ON, THEN STRETCH FABRIC, RIVET METAL OR SPOKESHAVE PROPELLER WOOD’
‘IF YOUR NAPIER-RAILTON SHOT OVER THE BANKING NOW, IT MIGHT LAND IN SOMEONE’S BACK GARDEN’
‘WE TOOK OUT 8000 CUBIC METRES OF SOIL FULL OF ASBESTOS, RUBBISH AND BITS OF JIGS, PLUS 60,000 LITRES OF OIL-CONTAMINATED WATER’
So, where’s the Bellman hangar? It’s a Grade Two listed building, after all. It was dismantled last year, every piece of its steel framework coded to make sure it goes back together in the right place, and sent to a firm in South Wales for restoration. All the nuts and bolts came undone with remarkable ease, and will be re-used; ‘I had the honour of undoing the last one,’ says Allan Winn proudly. The frame sections are now back at Brooklands, and once reassembled will wear new cladding with an original look but an extra layer of insulation.
There’s a convenient space bounded by the new Flight Shed, the London Bus Museum and the temporary Vimy inflatable hangar (which contains, among others, a replica of the Atlantic-traversing Vickers Vimy, which has itself crossed the Atlantic and more). The Bellman hangar will be rebuilt there, alongside the Finishing Straight, and it will become the Brooklands Aircraft Factory showing in displays, live demonstrations and hands-on participation, be it by adults or school-age children, how aircraft have been built over the last 80 years. Doped fabric to carbonfibre, it will all be here; visitors will be able to dress in authentic clothing, clock-on, stretch fabric or rivet metal or spokeshave propeller wood, then get their clocking-on card stamped when they have done their ‘apprenticeship’.
‘In all, 18,600 aircraft were made here,’ Winn reminds us, ‘and today the aerospace industry is worth over £20bn a year to the UK. But there has been nowhere for the public to see this huge industry, no front door. That’s what we’re doing.’ The Flight Shed will house the complete aircraft, some of them in running condition, others at least with live cockpits. The Hawker Hurricane was built on the Brooklands site, too, and the Flight Shed has a suitably local Hurricane which just needs a tail strut and a critical propeller component and it will be ready to taxi. There’s also a Hunter and a twoseater Harrier jump jet.
Half a Wellington fuselage shows its intricate skeleton; the fuselages were made elsewhere on the Brooklands site, further round the banking into which the factory cut. This and the complete Wellington, the latter currently stored in another temporary hangar, will move to the Aircraft Factory, with the Harrier’s prototype predecessor, the Hawker-Siddeley P1127, looming over the exhibits from its mezzanine.
So the new or repositioned buildings will be aerospace-related. The automotive side is already well housed in the existing historic garages and workshops on the far side of the Clubhouse. Both strands will use the new climate-controlled store, archive and training room on the Flight Shed’s lower ground floor beneath the display level. In here are original Vickers workbenches, pressure suits, flying jackets and more, much of it unseen by the public, and both the aerospace archive (mainly Vickers) and any automotive archives needing a home will be stored here. Courses will include restoration and preservation skills.
Now we’re standing on the banking, looking down on the Finishing Straight towards The Heights. ‘It was in the planning conditions for The Heights that the Straight wasn’t built on,’ says Brooklands trustee and financial expert Bryan Smart, who was instrumental in getting Mercedes-Benz on board. ‘The lines of the lighting poles follow the edges of the straight. It’s wonderful to see the whole Straight out in the open after all these years.’
We walk down to where the Bellman hangar stood, and where its dismantled skeleton is stacked and labelled. The Finishing Straight slopes laterally as the ground falls towards the River Wey, which meant that the ground at the front of the hangar had to be built up to horizontality so the sliding doors would work properly. Then, after the war, rubble was spread over the straight’s surface inside the hangar to level it, and a new, flat concrete floor poured.
That rubble has been a godsend, separating the later and earlier concrete. ‘We are staggered by the condition,’ beams Winn. ‘This original concrete is six inches thick and unreinforced. It became quite a patched surface and will be again. We’ve agreed the concrete specification with Historic England.’ That’s the part of English Heritage responsible for regulations.
Embedded in the concrete, from wartime production of the Wellington, are steel rails from the production line and iron covers over ancient compressed-air lines. These will stay, as part of the history, but are flush with the surface. ‘We’ll make them safe for the Bentleys that will soon be rushing over them at over 100mph,’ Winn promises, ‘but we’ll have the right sort of bumps. People forget that race tracks weren’t smooth back then.’
After the straight’s re-opening at the Double Twelve with parades and demo runs on the Saturday and timed sprints on the Sunday, the Flight Shed and Bellman hangar will be opened in the late summer. What will be next? Some of the banking is subsiding, by up to a foot in places, as water has leached the underlying soil away, so that needs to be fixed.
There’s a 52-metre gap between the museum’s section of the banking and that of Mercedes- Benz world, where a Hennebique reinforcedconcrete bridge once spanned the Wey. In 1968 it was damaged in a big flood; Vickers viewed it as a needless complication and took it down. ‘Mercedes-Benz would assist in raising funding to rebuild it,’ says Bryan Smart, ‘and then we could use all the banking at the north end and the Railway Straight beyond. That’s the Holy Grail, and we’d like to see it in our lifetimes.’
The museum is the managing agent for all the activities of the Brooklands Conservation Management Plan, which brings together everyone with an interest in the site, including the Brooklands Heritage Partnership of local authorities, Historic England and the museum itself. ‘They’re all behind it now,’ says Winn, ‘so we won’t have, for example, utility companies digging up pieces of banking by Tesco because they assume they have the right to do so.’
Meanwhile there’s still that final £1m to raise. The Heritage Lottery Fund provided the initial £5m, helped by the museum’s emphasis on ‘education, interpretation, participation and immersion’ rather than simply being a collection of ‘dead things in sheds’. The Libor fund, generated from fines levied on misbehaving banks, provided £1m through the efforts of local MP (and now Chancellor of the Exchequer) Philip Hammond. Legacies have contributed another £1m, although estranged relatives sometimes try to scupper the wishes of deceased Brooklands enthusiasts considered ‘not of sound mind’ by those relatives for having placed such value on the place they loved.
The restoration of the banking and the bridge are beyond the current project’s remit, so more funds will be needed. ‘It will never be completely done,’ declares Allan Winn, but he and the tireless Brooklands team are thrilled with what they have already achieved. The re-opening of the Finishing Straight will be a potent symbol of Brooklands’ regeneration. ‘It will be,’ Winn says with a glint in the eye, ‘the fastest event we’ve ever run.’
Above and left Site is made ready for relocated Bellman hangar and the Brooklands Aircraft factory within; hangar structural elements have been blasted, refinished and marked for their reassembly. Clockwise from facing page, bottom Half a Wellington fuselage in the Flight Shed, which takes centre stage in the view (above) opposite temporary Portakabins; schematics of proposed Flight Shed and Aircraft Factory layouts; new archive; original Vickers workbench and vice. Clockwise from above Line of Finishing Straight heads into the distance – the later concrete track will be removed; Allan Winn holds the final hangar nut and bolt to be undone; new Flight Shed is already full; ’20s racers join the Straight at what is now The Heights business park. Below and facing page. Concrete, hi-vis and hard hats; hole for hangar support; Wellingtons in wartime production; Test Hill hides behind today’s trees; some of the original concrete is damaged and uncovering it is cold work; Concorde looms over memorial wall; original hangar lighting.