A new feature launching today for Warbird Tails is something I have been considering for a while now; Warbird Places. This series will take a look at derelict or forgotten sites linked to historic aviation around the country that have now either been repurposed or simply left to return to nature.
The starting point for this series takes us to rural Hampshire and the New Forest, world renown as a beautiful part of the country. Cattle grids are scattered around the forest due to the huge number of wild New Forest ponies and the area is unsurprisingly hugely popular with tourists and offers a refreshing change from other parts of the world.
This first post takes a look at the earliest chapter in the forest’s involvement with aviation, which spanned over 50 years. It all started in a location that for many car enthusiasts will be a household name, though also played an important part in the region’s aviation heritage. This instalment looks at the flying that took place near Beaulieu.
This part of the world is probably better known to many as the site of a national motor museum which hosts all manner of historic racing cars and land speed record winners. However it is also home to one of the earliest aviation schools in the UK. The original site was close to the village of East Boldre. William McCardle and J Armstrong Drexel carried out the first flights in the New Forest in 1910. This was to go on to become the New Forest Aviation School, the second of its kind in the UK and only the fifth in the world. In those early days the site only had two buildings and was a very basic construction. These early adventures took place in a Bleriot monoplane, much like the example which Bleriot himself had made history with only a year earlier. The flying school proved popular and a number of students passed through during the two years of operation.
Two years later the Royal Flying Corp took interest in the site, which had returned to grazing land during the intervening years. The same land that had previously been training civilian and military pilots alike was soon renamed RFC Beaulieu by 1915. Further hangars were constructed, along with an officers mess (which still stands today as the village hall). During this time training would have been carried out using Avro 504s and Be2s as new recruits prepared to depart to the front.
From 1919 onwards the base was closed and was returned to the forest in 1922 and little remains today aside from the old officers mess. Incredibly an impressive reminder of the sites history was uncovered in 2012, when a clear chalk outline of “BEAULIEU” was uncovered. It is thought that this was completed some time between 1910 and 1916 during the sites aviation use but the exact time is unknown. This has now been restored and provides a key indicator of the location of the first airfield in the are.
The original site had been deemed unsuitable for military use in the 1930s which meant that by the time the second world war came around a move to a new site was required. This new site was about a mile West from the old site and work started in 1941.
Much like other sites during the second world war Beaulieu saw a number of units move in and out with aircraft such as the B-24 Liberator, B-26 Marauder and P-47 Thunderbolt using the airfield as well as RAF Hawker Typhoons. Like other Forest airfields it took a key part in D-Day.
Late in 1944 the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment moved in and tested all manner of gliders and helicopters over the years before moving in 1950. While work was carried out in the early 50s to raise the field to US Air Force standards, it was returned to the Forestry Commission in 1959 and flying history and Beaulieu came to an end.
A few reminders of the second world war site still remain, with sections of the perimeter track and runway still standing. It is great to look down the main runway with the surreal foreground of a gathering of wild horses that signifies the temporary nature of some of these wartime airfields. As seen in the shots here the largest remaining section of the runway is still used by model flying today, which means that you can still enjoy the sight and sound of historic flying, albeit in miniature at this historic site. I have included a shot of a lovely T-28 model that was flying at the time of my visit.
As you will appreciate in later posts on this subject, the New Forest airfields are remarkable in that even though they have largely been returned to nature, you can see the old outlines of the airfield clear as day. Clearings that were runways stick out clearly and even old perimeter tracks can still easily be traced on foot.
There are a number of invaluable sources that tell the story of the aviation history of the New Forest that I have used as a source for the information in this post, to accompany the images I have taken. The Real New Forest Guide in particular, telling the story in far greater detail than outlined here.