Release of the proposals led to action and more than three hundred individuals submitted objections to the Salisbury Plain Masterplan. They formed an eclectic alliance of conservationists, historians, Druids, tour operators, English Heritage, pagans and locals aghast that a World Heritage Site could be wantonly spoiled. Over half of the objections were concerned specifically with the rising of the sun at the solstice and an online petition drew more than 20,000 signatures from those similarly concerned.
Well, six months later, it seems the concerns had an effect. The planners listened and the Revised Plan, published in June, states that all building will now take place north of the earlier proposed areas and will not interfere with the sight lines to Stonehenge. Even President Obama seemed satisfied when he strolled around the stones recently, remarking ‘It’s cool’.
Good news for the present but like so many things – it’s nothing new!
In 1909 the area to the south of Larkhill – where the 2014 Masterplan proposed new houses – was in use for aeronautical experiments led by Horatio Barber, an early British aviation pioneer. However these fliers were aware of the importance to others of the midsummer traditions at Stonehenge and a ‘Sun Gap’ was left between the first permanent sheds (hangars) built for the British and Colonial Company in 1910 and later military sheds erected for the Air Battalion, the precursor of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC).
In March 1913 Major Brooke-Popham, Officer Commanding No.3 Squadron of the RFC then based at Larkhill, wrote to the powers at nearby Bulford Camp:
‘I understand that a ceremony is held every year in connection with Stonehenge. As far as I can gather one of the sheds erected for the Military Aeroplane Competition will intercept the sun’s rays when it rises on Midsummer Day. Can you inform me whether this shed should be removed before then?’
The response from a staff officer of the Royal Engineers was curt in the extreme:
‘I do not consider I should be justified in recommending expenditure of WD [War department] funds on removing a shed to avoid the possibility of interfering with the sun’s rays falling on Stonehenge.’
However the officers of the Royal Flying Corps were obviously men of foresight and discretion. Notwithstanding the attitude of their Army brethren Major Barrington-Kennet, Adjutant to the RFC, no doubt witness to the correspondence, wrote to Brooke-Popham in May confirming that the interfering structures, two temporary sheds, be taken down and stored.
A potential crisis was averted and no doubt those gathering at the summer solstice in 1913 were unaware that the sun almost didn’t rise quite as expected that day.
The aerodrome at Larkhill has long gone but five of the original sheds remain, now in use as business units. They are the oldest surviving purpose-built aviation buildings in the country and, appropriately, have listed status.
The Military Aeroplane Competition consisted of various tests that demanded each aircraft demonstrate its capabilities for speed, climbing, load-carrying and operation from rough ground. The declared winner was an aeroplane built by Samuel Cody who walked away with £5,000 but many doubted its capabilities as a military machine. The BE2, designed by De Havilland and built at the Royal Aircraft Factory was the best performer but, because the Superintendent of the Factory was one of the judges, it was deemed ineligible. Subsequently the Cody machine was never used and the BE2 went on to become a mainstay of the Royal Flying Corps in the early part of the First World War.
The Boy’s Book of Aeroplanes, one of our republished Vintage Words of Wisdom titles, was written in 1912. It provides an excellent description of the development of powered flight up to that time and includes photographs of aeroplanes over Salisbury Plain and Stonehenge. The author, Lt. O’Brien Hubbard, wrote from experience having obtained his pilot’s certificate in June that same year. He subsequently commanded 73 Squadron that was known, perhaps inevitably, as Mother Hubbard’s Own.