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Trackside: Farnborough

Stories about people and places from across the South Western Railway network.

Farnborough is a town in northeast Hampshire near the boundary with Surrey, and is about 38 miles from London.

It was founded in Saxon times and is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. Its name is formed from Ferneberga which means “fern hill”.

Over time, the town has grown and it has incorporated a number villages, including North Camp, Cove and Southwood. Its neighbouring town is the garrison town of Aldershot, with Frimley to the north.

It’s probably best known for its association with aviation…

Farnborough’s Aviation History

There aren’t many places in the UK that are so well known for their aviation history. 

It’s not just planes – this place has reached the heights with innovations for airborne cameras, high altitude space suits, night vision aids, head-up cockpit displays and also the first carbon fibre experiments. 

It was back in 1905 when the Army’s Balloon Factory was relocated to Farnborough. 

You might not think about balloons as being part of aviation history but believe it or not, balloons were important to the military as a way of observing the enemy.

In 1912, the Royal Aircraft Factory opened its hangar doors, with the town’s airfield testing many new aircraft during World War I.  

For those who love planes and aeronautical displays, the Farnborough International Air Show is a must see!

Did you know at the 1958 Air Show, the Black Arrows – one of the predecessors to the Red Arrows, executed a 22-plane formation loop, which remains a world record for the greatest number of aircraft looped in formation!

A little bit of French History

Saint Michael’s Abbey is a contemplative monastery of Benedictine monks. The Benedictine life has been lived here since 1895, with the monks living a traditional life of prayer, work and study according to the Rule of St Benedict. 

And a very interesting piece of history – the Abbey is the final resting place of the last French Emperor – Napoleon III, his wife and son!  

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Napoleon was exiled after defeat at the Battle of Sedan in 1870, in the Franco-Prussian War. It was safer to come here than face the Prussians, so he moved here with his wife and son. 

When he died, his wife – the Empress Eugénie, built the Abbey as a monastery and the Imperial Mausoleum, and his body was brought here where it remains to this day.

You should have seen the size of the procession! 

Places to visit:

Farnborough Air Sciences Museum

The FAST Museum building, which dates from 1908, was the headquarters of the Royal Balloon School. 

It houses an impressive collection of aircraft, satellites, simulators and Royal Aircraft Establishment related material. 

There’s also guided tours around parts of Farnborough’s aviation quarter not normally open to the public, including… 

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Wind Tunnels 

While wind tunnels are still integral to aerospace engineering, in the days before computer simulations, Farnborough’s Wind Tunnels were at the forefront of aerodynamic research and development from the early 1930s until 1994.

When built, Building Q121 was one of the largest wind tunnels in the world, with a 30 foot six bladed fan – each blade made from laminated mahogany.

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Blackwater Valley

This is a beautiful green corridor, with several nature reserves, whilst Southwood Woodland boasts 80 acres of oak and birch woodland – ideal for family days out, walking and cycling.

Aldershot Military Museum

At the Museum you can discover the story of Aldershot Military Town, take on the assault course and admire the tanks. 

The museum, which tells the story of daily life for both soldier and civilian since 1854, is housed in Farnborough’s only surviving brick-built barrack blocks.

What you like

We caught up with some children to find out their favourite places to visit in and around Farnborough…

  • We like to walk our dogs in Queen Elizabeth Park but we like it too as there’s playgrounds.”
  • “I liked it when we went camping by the Quay, and you could swim in the water there too.”
  • “We went swimming in Aldershot Lido which is quite near Farnborough. The water was really cold but they have cool slides as well.”

Meet Samuel Cody!

He was an aviation pioneer and successfully completed the first powered flight here in Britain. 

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Along with his flight innovations, he was also a cowboy, circus performer and the first man to cross the English Channel towed by kites.

He was born in the wild west of America in 1867. He lived the typical life of a cowboy, doing all those things cowboys love to do. He even joined the Gold Rush and went prospecting for gold. 

He came to Britain to perform in a circus. 

Some say he was influenced by the large birds of the wild west, because he did a bunch of experiments with man-lifting kites and in 1901, offered his inventions to the British War Office.

He knew that during the Boer War, the British Army had used observation balloons which took hours to inflate and were useless in winds.

He figured there was a better way to do the job – and other people thought so too.  

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In 1904 he came to Farnborough to test his kites for the Army. 

He quickly got involved with an airship that was being constructed here – it was called the ‘Nulli Secundus’. 

In October 1907, he flew it from Farnborough to London in 3 hours 25 minutes.

After circling St Paul’s Cathedral, he headed back to Farnborough, but the wind had other ideas and he was forced to land at Crystal Palace. You should have seen people’s faces when he came down!

After that, it was all about airplanes for him. His first was called ‘British Army Aero Plane No. 1’.  It was a beauty, with 40 foot wings and bicycle wheels on the tips of each wing.

Another of his planes became known as ‘The Flying Cathedral‘ because of the French term ‘katahedral’ referring to the curvature of the bi-plane’s wings. 

He entered it into the 1910 Michelin Cup.  If that wasn’t enough, he also created designs for a monoplane and an air ambulance for the Royal Army Medical Corps.

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His final aircraft was a water-plane which he practiced floating on the Basingstoke Canal. 

Cody suffered several accidents during his life.

On one occasion he fell from one of his man-lifting kites, breaking his arm, whilst on another when his plane’s engine cut out at 2,000 feet, he glided down only to collide with a cow!

On 7th August 1913 Sam set another new record – although not one he would have wanted. 

During the flight, the wings crumpled and everyone on board was hurled 500 feet to the ground.  The record?

Samuel Cody was sadly the first man in England to be killed in a powered aircraft accident.



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Stories about people and places from across the railway network

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