We can be thankful that this interaction of man and nature remains as it has for thousands of year because on two occasions in the past hundred odd years it was nearly not so.
In 2014 the Ministry of Defence proposed building of hundreds of new houses at Larkhill and there was uproar that the development would obstruct the sight of the rising sun on Midsummer Day. Larkhill to Stonehenge is less than a mile so any structures on the line of sight will interfere directly with witnessing dawn break at the summer solstice.
After hundreds of objections, and an online petition that drew more than 20,000 signatures, sensibility prevailed and the plan was revised. The houses were moved north of the earlier proposed areas so as not to interfere with the sight lines to Stonehenge.
However over a century earlier, in 1913, the area to the south of Larkhill – where the new housing estate has been developed - was in use as one of the earliest airfields in the country. Many of the fliers at Larkhill 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 to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Air Force.
In August 1912 the Military Aeroplane Competition was held at Larkhill. The purpose of this Competition was to determine the type of aeroplane best suited to the requirements of the RFC. Valuable prizes were on offer: Up to £1,500 for the best British-built machine and £4,000 for the best machine from anywhere in the world. To accommodate the influx of people and machines additional temporary sheds were erected. It seems some of these went up in the ‘sun gap’ and it was pointed out that if left in situ they would obscure the Stonehenge sight line come the following June.
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:
‘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 tact. Notwithstanding the attitude of his Army brethren Major Barrington-Kennett, Adjutant to the RFC, took action and was able to report back to Brooke-Popham in May confirming that the interfering structures, two temporary sheds, were taken down and stored.
A potential for much ill will 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.
We are lucky that, 105 years later, the actions of a few have preserved this vista and enabled us to celebrate Midsummer as undoubtedly our ancestors have done for so many years.
Why not take a look at our ebook The Boys' Book of Aeroplanes? First published in 1912, the same year as the Larkhill Aeroplane Trials, this title is well illustrated with contemporary and rare photographs, and provides a fascinating insight to aviation, right at the start.