Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Bedford by Bicycle II: Cardington

DAY 2 of exploring Bedford by bicycle after work took me south, along one of the busy artery roads out of town towards (and then underneath) the A421, the main road from Milton Keynes to the A1. No sooner had I passed through the pedestrian tunnel than I was on country lanes, surrounded by fields with farm cottages, horses and donkeys wearing overcoats. But this idyll was short-lived, for I was soon on a busy A road again, this time climbing a hill, a rare sight in this part of the country. My first destination was Shortstown, a mostly new development proudly placed atop this hill. It was not long before I got my first hint of the landmark I had come to see. Can you see the clue too?

Yes! That's right! An airship!

Why? Because this is just down the road:

These are the Cardington Sheds. I see them from the train every day, for it is difficult to miss two enormous hangars in the middle of an otherwise mostly flat landscape. Viewed from the South, as the train heads, they are really rather impressive structures. And from 1916 to 1930, and again during the Second World War, they were more than impressive structures. They were airship factories.


It is said that the RMS Mauritania and the RMS Lusitania could fit inside with the shed doors closed. The Titanic would have fit inside with only 40 foot of bow peeping out of the front door. These were, and are, immense structures that at their peak produced 26 new balloons per week. It was here that in 1930 the enormous R100 was housed and maintained prior to flying to Canada, the Cardington to Quebec journey lasting 78 hours.

It was also from Cardington that the experimental R101, the world's largest flying vehicle of the time, departed for Karachi on 4 October 1930. Among its passengers were government and military personnel. Setting off at dusk, the craft never made it to India, for poor weather and engine problems intervened. The R101 crashed near Beauvais, France, catching fire immediately and causing the death of 48 of her 54 passengers. With R101 down, the British abandoned all attempts to produce lighter-than-air aircraft; the remaining R100 was dismantled, and the sheds nigh on closed.

Today, the sheds have a very different life. Shed 1 is in worse wear than Shed 2, but is in the process of being restored. Shed 2 meanwhile, being a giant indoor space away from prying eyes, has been used for rehearsals for the likes of Take That, U2 and AC/DC. Warner Bros and Syncopy also hired Cardington to film the Dark Knight trilogy of Batman films.

On the day of my visit I could only go so far as the front gate, warned of guard dogs were I to go any closer. I then returned to Shortstown, weaving behind army cadets as they arrived for their weekly evening meeting, through the brand new town centre, then back down the hill and right, along a country lane to the substantially older village of Cardington itself. This was a pretty, old village with a grand church and (less grand) pub as focal point, either side of a village green. All the houses were picturesque and well preserved, many red brick and idyllic amidst gardens and communal parkland. I paused outside of the green painted, timber clad home of the Bedfordshire Road Cycling Club, but quickly had to move myself and my bicycle out of the road to avoid getting run over. A passing jogger laughed. I meandered around the village, took another look at the airship sheds from the far side, paused for a moment to watch the drifting clouds pass above the church tower, then went on my way, home via Priory Country Park, a surprise nature reserve very close to our house, and yet undiscovered by us until recently. More on this, I'm sure, another time.


Cardington Sheds on the night of the blue moon, picture credit: Mrs Simon Says