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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 August, 2003, 09:11 GMT 10:11 UK
Concrete steeped in history
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online

Every day in the UK a historic building or monument is lost or destroyed. But it's not only old stately homes that are disappearing. A new fight is on to save 20th Century 'heritage sites' such as the innovation hothouse that gave us Concorde.

Some time after helping to found the Royal Aircraft Establishment preservation society, Laurence Peskett was rummaging through discarded test tubes in the institution's chemistry block.

"I found one with a bit of stuff in the bottom and a note stuck in top. It said 'First carbon fibre ever made at RAE. Could be of interest'."

Carbon fibre, the rigid, lightweight material that has revolutionised everything from Formula One cars to tennis rackets, is just one of the landmark discoveries to be made at the now defunct RAE's headquarters in Farnborough, Hampshire.

The achievements of Mr Peskett and his fellow campaigners may be less revolutionary, but they are notable nonetheless.

Key parts of the site, which is steeped in aviation history, have been saved from the bulldozers and wrecking balls.

Earlier this year two of its wind tunnels were given Grade I protected status.

'CRADLE OF AVIATION' IN THE UK
Site covers 180 acres, much of which has been bulldozed
Among the world's pioneering aeronautical research centres
Farnborough still hosts world renowned annual air show
Built in 1934, the biggest of the two looks nothing like your typical heritage site. Driven by a six-blade mahogany fan (see top picture) with a diameter of 9.1m, the tunnel was used to test full-sized aircraft prototypes like the Spitfire.

For those who like their historic buildings to come in the shape of stately homes, ancient monuments and places of worship, it's probably no compensation to hear the awesome propeller is housed in a cathedral-like chamber.

Campaigners such as Mr Peskett, who have fought for 10 years under the banner of the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST) to save the RAE site, must now move on to phase two of their plan: restoration.

Restoration is about to become the new "makeover", with the launch of a major BBC television series.

The 10-part series, called Restoration, will focus on 30 historical buildings around the UK and viewers will be asked to vote on which one should be restored.

With a few exceptions - most notably a dilapidated World War II prisoner of war camp in County Durham - all the buildings are pre-20th Century.

Concrete plans

But while there is an obvious case for saving some of Britain's oldest buildings, Farnborough is a reminder that heritage did not stop with the death of Queen Victoria.

 Victoria Baths, Manchester,
A handful of 20th Century buildings will feature in BBC's Restoration
English Heritage began listing post-war buildings in the 1990s and many are now on the books.

It has found resistance of course. After all, tower blocks are not everyone's idea of aesthetic beauty incarnate. A common charge is that "concrete equals disgusting".

But beauty is not always the point, says Adam Wilkinson, of the pressure group Save Britain's Heritage.

"It is not architectural importance but immense historical importance that should save this site," he says of Farnborough.

Certainly, the buildings are anything but attractive - a grey corrugated iron clock tower, 1940s brick huts and a collection of civil service-style office blocks.

But within these walls, some of Britain's most iconic aeronautical triumphs were forged.

Hothouse of innovation

Concorde, the bouncing bomb, the Harrier "jump jet" and the Spitfire were all developed here, to a greater or lesser extent, as was Sir Frank Whittle's first jet engine.

Exterior of the 24ft wind tunnel at Farnborough
Big on history, not aesthetics Peter J Cooper/Falcon Aviation Photographs
In 1908, Colonel Samuel Franklin Cody made the first powered flight in the UK at Farnborough. Ten years later the Royal Air Force was founded here and the space suits for Nasa's Apollo astronauts were developed here.

Since the site was sold off by the Ministry of Defence in 1998, much has been demolished, its land given over to new office developments.

But the historic core remains in tact, thanks largely to the campaigning of the preservation society and Save Britain's Heritage.

Not only have they helped achieve Grade I listing for the two main wind tunnels - fondly known as Q121 and R133 in their MOD days - but they have also won protection for the oldest wind tunnel on site, built in 1916, and another building.

"It's been a colossal struggle to get this far," says Mr Peskett. "We set out to do something positive and show how it could be turned into a science park or something and not just whinge about the destruction of historic buildings."

Venus Williams in 1999
Tennis players owe Farnborough a debt of gratitude
But the struggle has some way to go yet. They have to begin repairing the wind tunnels' crumbling concrete and figure out a use for them. Doing nothing is not an option, says Adam Wilkinson, since an empty building will decay faster than an occupied one.

Buildings dotted between the listed wind tunnels, are still on the demolition list. Campaigners want to preserve them and are even willing to see them turned into housing, which would provide a "dowry" for the rest of the site.

"It's important to retain a sense of place," says Mr Peskett, "and that means keeping a consistent feel to the place."

Restoration starts on BBC Two at 2100 on Friday, 8 August.


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