This month we talked to Steve Morley at Stow Maries Great War Aerodome about their unique site – from original First World War hangars and an Officer’s mess, to owls and raptors and their hugely popular Wings and Wheels events.
For people who haven’t visited Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome, what’s it all about?
Stow Maries is the most intact, original, surviving WW1 Royal Flying Corps (RFC) operational aerodrome left in Europe. It was operational from 1916 until 1919 and was a key part of the London Air Defence Region, combatting raids by German Zeppelins, and both Gotha and Giant bombers across the South-East and London. This was the first Battle of Britain.
We have 22 surviving buildings that were built in 1917-19, including an original RFC Officers Mess which we believe is the only one in existence. The long-term aim of the Trust is to restore the whole site back to its heyday in 1918. This is very dependent on funding being found from various sources, with timescales to complete the work(s) linked to funding availability.
There are currently four exhibitions at the site, plus two temporary hangars housing aircraft from this time of early aviation. It is still an active General Aviation airfield so visitors can see aircraft departing and arriving. It is 99% volunteer run, with a great enthusiastic team. We normally offer guided tours as part of the visitor experience, which receive excellent feedback, but this option is currently unavailable due to COVID restrictions. We do however have a Visit England ‘Good to go’ certificate which confirms that we open the site to visitors in the best way possible.
When the Royal Airforce (RAF) abandoned the site in 1919, it reverted back to a farm, owned by the Turner family. Mr Turner made use of the RAF buildings on-site, with several being turned into farmworkers accommodation. There is a whole aspect of social history associated with the site which we are just beginning to research with a view to forthcoming exhibitions being developed in the next five years.
We also have a vibrant wildlife population of owls, raptors, and other species, with a wildlife team able to give guided tours around parts of the site albeit this is not possible with current COVID restrictions.
What makes Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome so special?
Being the only surviving, untouched aerodrome from WW1 makes Stow Maries unique, and a jewel in UK aviation history. Some of the earliest aviation developments took place here, certainly in respect of development of an early air defence network – the continuing development of which went onto become a major factor in the RAF being successful in the Battle of Britain in 1940.
Visitors can experience the ambience of the site, buildings, and stories from the site told by our enthusiastic team. It has an incredibly strong ‘Spirit of Place’ that we strive to maintain at all times.
We are very much volunteer-driven and offer opportunities for people of all ages to become part of the award winning team that hosts members from a multitude of backgrounds and skill-sets.
Can you tell us about an exciting project you are working on?
We are the development stage for an exhibition around early wireless technology used in aircraft. Our resident squadron (No 37 Home Defence Squadron) was the first home defence squadron to be equipped with wireless as part of the defence of London. We are working with ex Marconi employees to get some of this early equipment interpreted and on display from Spring 2021.
Alongside the above we have a rolling five year exhibition strategy, which will helps to maintain the installation of a new exhibition every year – as we have for the past four years!
To compliment the curatorial aspects of the site we are developing relationships with other museums, including some of the major players in the aviation museum world. However, we would also like to develop partnerships with other regional museums not related to aviation in an effort to help each other out in what is now a challenging time for the industry.
What sort of events do you usually run?
We are open Friday, Saturday and Sunday throughout the period March – December, where all of our exhibitions are open. During the Spring/Summer/Autumn we hold three major events which include a flying display. Our signature event is Wings and Wheels which combines historic cars and aircraft. We also hold an event called Stow at War, which is one of the main Great War Living History events in the UK with a multitude of historians and groups attending from across the country.
Our website and our social media presence has more details of these events.
What’s coming up?
After a challenging year for all museums we look forward in 2021 to attracting new and existing visitors by refreshing and adding to our offering. We are currently working on a schedule of events for the year, including Wings and Wheels, and Stow at War. We are only too aware that the opportunities afforded to us in fundraising this year are unlikely to be repeated next year, so are working hard to link up with partners to reduce costs and push on towards financial sustainability. We are also very glad of the support of our Patrons and sponsors for all their help this year.
However we must also be cognisant of the challenges we face with COVID and ensure that whatever we plan takes into account the relevant guidelines of social distancing to ensure the safety of our volunteers and visitors alike. We want Stow Maries to be a great experience for heritage visitors, a curatorial example to others and most of all, a fun place to be in the #NewNormal!