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Preserving the past by allowing in the future


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Brooklands Motor Circuit


July 30, 2011

Brooklands Motor Circuit, Members Banking

For years, the former oval of Brooklands was a largely neglected piece of motor racing nostalgia in the sleepy town of Weybridge, Surrey. There, in the southwestern outskirts of London, lay the forgotten remains of what is now advertised as the birthplace of British motorsport and aviation. Things changed when Mercedes-Benz bought the place. On the back of grand German investment, the track’s timber racing sheds and rusty, worn-down aeroplane hangars remarkably became fashionable again. At a time when everyone mourned the death of leading Brooklands conservationist Bill Boddy we went to see if the Spirit of Brooklands is still alive.

Brooklands, racing lock-ups

The racing lock-ups at Brooklands. (photo 8W)

We had no idea what to expect, having visited the former glory of Brooklands almost at the end of its prolongued state of limbo, the site as racing circuit having reached its operational nadir in 1939. In our minds, the territory was still as we left it at the beginning of the century. A place you could simply drive down to, accessing the area at the Banking Bend before letting the car roll down to the bottom of the Test Hill to park it underneath one of the historic awnings. Then it was a matter of walking down the battered concrete on the Finishing Straight to meet up with the banked part of the circuit still present, with no-one in sight to stop you from attempting to reach the Members Bridge the hard way. Having survived those escapades, it was time to admire the preservation work done by the Brooklands Society. In 2002, the Brooklands Museum had been receiving visitors long since, its trust having been established in 1987 and regularly opening its doors from 1991, but the lock-ups and sheds housing its modest collection felt alienated all the same. You could sense the struggle against the odds to at least keep Brooklands dwell in the miserable semi-existence the circuit had endured since the Second World War, albeit very much tidied up compared to the wasteland it had been when Bill Boddy first returned to set foot on it sometime in the early seventies.

Brooklands, Napier-Railton

The ERA shed: a detailed look at the glorious Napier-Railton. (photo 8W)

Therefore it’s hard to imagine that essentially the same museum – with a few enhancements – is now a 100,000-visitor attraction. That’s irony of it: when the area was free for anyone to roam there was no living soul in sight. Now, as a family day out that will set you back at least 25 quid the Brooklands Museum has transformed into quite a lively place, reaching to audiences well beyond the motor racing or aviation connoisseur. And then there’s the new Umfeld created by the Three-Pointed Star. When in 2004 Daimler Chrysler jumped in to ‘save’ the hallowed arena it was widely feared that Germanic modernisation – over 60 years after they tried to bomb the place – would drown the solemn atmosphere with tasteless glitz and glam, to put to an end the motor circuit’s peaceful retirement the Brooklands Society had worked for so hard. Indeed, its Mercedes-Benz World ‘heritage and technology centre’ and its infield test track including parts of the Campbell circuit, along with the 80-room Brooklands Hotel, seems to have made the place buzzing with people. In that sense the spirit of Brooklands has undeniably come alive again.

Brooklands, Morgan-JAP three-wheeler

The Malcolm Campbell shed: JAP-engined Morgan three-wheeler in atmospheric surroundings. (photo 8W)

But is that a bad thing? Why should this temple of speed be a quiet place of worship exclusive to a handful of people in the know? In other words, the right crowd and no crowding? Remarkably, we found that the Members Banking – a large stretch of it now integrally part of the Museum grounds – was still as tranquil and serene as it was ten years ago, even on a busy Saturday during school holidays. Elsewhere, the families visiting the sheds and pavillions were hardly the loud kind shouting their obnoxious kids around. So it’s still an OK crowd, and there is no crowding that deserves mentioning. Most of the visitors wander the vast area around the various Vickers ‘planes or are in the midst of undergoing the Concorde experience, as they are able to since 2007, when Corcorde G-BBDG was added to the outdoor aviation display. The huge Wellington hangar is another crowd puller, and deservedly so. Its centerpiece, a Vickers Wellington bomber with its cloth cover stripped to show its wooden carcass gives anyone a terrifying inside look into what life – for how long it would last – must have been like on board of one these valiant but fragile war horses. A new addition is the recently moved Cobham Collection of London buses. We were allowed into the brand-new Cobham Hall a few days prior to the official August 1, 2011 opening, and found that the double-deckers and horse-drawn omnibuses on display form the perfect link between the two transport modalities already present on the site. They were a magnificent sight to behold. In any way, the money now coming in from the thousands of visitors should help maintain Brooklands’ state as it is now.

Brooklands, Vickers Wellington bomber

The Wellington Hangar: bomber stripped naked. (photo 8W)

Not that there is any chance anyway of the Hugh Locke-King-conceived motor circuit returning to its former glory. Oh, how we all crave for a revival of Napiers, Sunbeams and Delages and their glorious days of racing and land-speed-record attempts. However, that option was taken from us ages ago, so modern society showing a blatant disregard to what made Britain great is a fallacious argument against the development that we’ve seen on and around Brooklands. It was back in wartime that the Byfleet Banking was first cut up in order to create easy access to the Vickers factory, followed in 1951 by a runway extension that allowed its new Valiant bombers to be flown out, so a long time before tobacco company Gallaher was granted permission to destroy a sizeable section of the Members Banking, to truly reach a point-of-no-return for the once glorious oval. Office buildings on the former part of the banking include those of Prudential Assurance and Sony. Furthermore, parts of Byfleet Banking now owned by Tesco and Marks & Spencer, the banking having been treated to a further interruption to allow customers to access the supermarkets’ car parks. However, it’s not all black-and-white: Tesco now seems very much aware of the historic value of its backyard, as can be witnessed everywhere in their store. The same applies to Gallaher (now Japan Tobacco) which later spent a sizeable sum on getting the Museum going.

Brooklands, Cobham Bus Collection

The relocated Cobham Bus Collection. (photo 8W)

Also, with concrete chosen over asphalt, for obvious technical reasons at the time, the track has taken such a beating by a century of British weather – and some heavy enemy bombing during the Battle of Britain – that it has really become a piece of modern-day archaeology. The 24-hour slot car race held during the centenary celebrations in 2007 to commemorate Selwyn Edge’s 1909 achievement of averaging over 100mph for 24 hours, or the amazing Scalextric race organised by Top Gear’s James May in 2009 seems to be the only racing still possible on the current remains of the track, even though large parts of the circuit are indeed still intact. Perhaps, restoring and repaving Brooklands is as much of a crime as it would be to tear the place down completely. The Museum’s lively shared existence with Mercedes-Benz World, with one foot in the past and the other one firmly in the present, looks like it is the best way forward into the future.

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