Lying apparently forgotten In the middle of the Bedfordshire countryside are two hangers so large they could be mistaken for vast upturned ocean liners made from corrugated iron. The patches of rust from as yet un-restored parts (only one corner now) are a relief to the eyes in that they are the only way of judging the scale of these enormous structures which date back to the early 1930s and are Grade Two listed buildings.
|Cardington as seen from side road (white van bottom right)|
|GoogleMap screenshot of Bedford showing scale of Cardington (bottom right)|
|Main doors, Hanger 1|
Such was the importance of the project two gigantic airships were built to test the concept. The first, the R100, was built to a strict budget using tried materials and techniques by a private company (Vickers, in Yorkshire) and designed by a promising young designer called Barnes Wallis, who would go on to become an engineering legend immortalised as the creator of the bouncing bomb in THE DAMBUSTERS. The other airship, the R101 which was increasingly seen as a competitive exercise, was built as a government project actually at Cardington. Government was Labour at the time and so the papers dubbed the R100 the 'Capitalist' airship and the R101 the 'Socialist' airship. To be more accurate one was built by engineers using established engineering techniques, and the other was built by a committee to a timetable.
The unfolding tragedy is explained best by Nevile Shute in his book Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer, which we have to take as the authoritative source as he was a designer on the R100 at the time. It is summarised well here
|Un-restored corner of Hanger 1|
The R101 was a disaster even before it left the drawing board. Pushed into a maiden flight to India by political pressure, before it was ready and in the middle of a raging storm, it crashed in France killing 48 of the 54 on board including many influential members of government and society - wiping out at a stroke all the influential advocates for airship travel in Britain. Shortly after the blameless R100 was quietly scrapped.
|Hidden is a restored corner of Hanger 1 is one of the original docking towers from the 1930s|
No amount of train crashes, air disasters and Titanic tragedies have had the effect on an industry that the R101 disaster had. The truth is the British Empire stopped paying for itself some time in the 1920s and became a burden after that (financially as well as morally) so who knows what the Imperial Airship Scheme might have achieved. Likely World War 2 would have ended it anyway, but it is hard not to stand next to Cardington and think how busy and influential the place is in the universe of alternative reality's we are told exist beyond our own.
|"R-100 attached to mooring mast in Bedforshire, 1928" by Nationaal Archief - Zeppelin aan landingsmast / Zeppelin attached to mooring mastUploaded by PDTillman. Via Wikimedia Commons"|
|Inside Hanger 1, the original floor from 1917 is now several feet beneath the current level.|
Just north of Cardington, well within site of the sheds, is Shortstown. This was the 1930s new town, built in the middle of the Bedfordshire countryside to accommodation the families of those working on the Imperial Airship scheme. This lost little world has been rediscovered by the property developer, who has added to the charm of the original community by renovating the great old Shorts building and adding a much larger modern housing development which (I think) compliments the original site.