The newly launched £19.2 million The Silverstone Experience (TSE) opened its doors in 2019 at the entrance to the circuit, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. In March 2020 Prince Harry and Lewis Hamilton opened the collections as two of its leading patrons, and with a commitment to greater diversity, also an important aim of the education programme. With commanding views from the café area over the infield, as well as parts of the circuit, the exhibitions and archive spaces are housed in a refurbished World War Two aircraft hangar. The overall aim of the visitor attraction is to ensure that the heritage of Silverstone and post-war British motor racing is interpreted today, and protected for future generations. Where does the new audience strategy sit within that wider mission?
Developing New Audiences
New visitor attractions, including museums and heritage offers, often adopt a strategy to draw in new audiences. Silverstone will use contemporary history and sports heritage, particularly to inspire young people in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) subjects. The stated aim is ‘to inspire the next generation of world-class engineers and motorsport experts.’ At the same time, displays celebrate the circuit and the UK’s position at the heart of the global motor sport industry.
The Silverstone Experience will charge visitors to enter, like many independent museums in the UK, and there will be challenges in attracting young people under the age of eighteen as a distinct population. Currently, the footfall at the circuit is over-reliant upon adult white male racing fans over the age of forty attending for specific events, mainly through the Spring, Summer and Autumn. One key purpose in establishing TSE is to encourage more diverse visitor groups year-round, especially education groups and varied family and friendship groups.
One of the most historic circuits on today’s Formula One calendar, the use of the circuit is much more diverse than one large race, once a year, with important motorcycle, sports car, classic car and cycling events. Most days of the year, the circuit is in use and operates very much as a year-round business. What is there at the attraction for someone who is not a motor sport fan? This is a key problem for sporting museums and heritage offers in developing new audiences.
Local History and Early Modern History
Straddling the counties of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire, in prehistoric times the area is likely to have been wooded. The area was wooded under the Domesday survey of 1086, and under Royal control. Evidence suggests activity in the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. Late Iron Age and Early Romano-British pottery were recovered during demolition and excavation work begun in 1941 to establish an airfield on the site. Digs continued for over a decade after the World War Two.
Foundations of St. Thomas a Becket Chapel remain close to ‘Chapel corner’ on the Silverstone racetrack. The circuit is also close to the Roman Road between Towcester and Alcester, and a monastic house, Luffield Abbey, lay nearby. Today, Abbey and Luffied are both turns on the circuit. The Abbey was taken under the protection of Edward I, and only three inmates remained by 1493. Following the dissolution of the monasteries, the land passed into the ownership of a series of land holdings. Throughout the Eighteenth Century, Luffield Abbey remained attached to Stowe through a succession of inheritance. Luffield Abbey is one of few ancient parishes in the country with no church at its centre. The only extant remains from the Priory is a fishpond, and the stones from the Priory building are thought to have been incorporated into Luffield Abbey Farm. The ominous sounding Maggots Moor, next to the village of Whittlebury, is referenced in Maggots bend. All of this history is covered at the start of the visit to The Silverstone Experience.
Landscape and Gardening History
In 1711, a new Head Gardener, Charles Bridgeman, was appointed at Stowe Woods. Formerly part of the medieval Whittlewood Forest, Stowe was incorporated into an innovative landscape design, integrating woodlands and ridings and a carriage drive known as Northampton Drive with gate lodges. An example of British forest gardening, pioneered by Lord Cobham with Charles Bridgeman in collaboration with the architect Sir John Vanbrugh, Stowe was a substantial and complex design, combining straight ridings, or gallops, and sinuous paths set in woodland, with a series of key vistas onto local landmarks.
Stowe House, woods and ridings remain today of exceptional landscape significance, not just because Bridgeman would go on to become the Royal Gardener, but also because they formed a key historical transition between the fashion for formal symmetrical gardens at large country houses, based on French designs, and the British Forest style. Fans of Hampton Court, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and Richmond will enjoy Bridgeman’s earlier work at Stowe.
Agricultural and Military History
Luffield Abbey Farm appears to have been a modest agricultural business managed by tenant farmers, up until the site was requisitioned by the Air Ministry at the start of the Second World War. The farm buildings retain eighteenth and nineteenth century elements; and today form the core of the heritage area of the site which used to house the British Racing Driver’s Club (BRDC) archive, also familiarly known as the BRDC Farmhouse.
The development of the site to become a Bomber Command Airfield, was originally intended as a satellite to Bicester, but the airfield opened in March 1943 as a Royal Air Force Bomber Command Station in its own right, and was used by an Operational Training Unit No.17. The airfield consisted of three concrete runways and a perimeter track, and the site was equipped with aircraft hangars, accommodation blocks and a control tower, responsible for the training of bomber crews, mainly for night-time raids into occupied Europe, flying Vickers Wellington Bombers. The site is estimated to have accommodated around 2000 airmen and up to 200 Women's Auxiliary Air Force members (WAAFs) at the height of its operational power. Women pilots flew in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and others worked in as wireless and telegraph roles, meteorology, radar, catering, parachute packing and administration. WAAFs also worked with codes and ciphers, analysed reconnaissance photos and performed intelligence operations, so there is a rich history of women in STEMM on which to base education work.
Aircrews mainly trained on Wellingtons in order to learn how to operate a heavy bomber in preparation for conversion to flying in Lancasters and Stirlings. Alongside the instructors and trainees, the airfield had support and maintenance crew, the WAAFs mentioned above, and security servicemen from other regiments.. A memorial remains on site to six aircrew killed on 3 October 1943, and survivors like Sergeant Reg Hyde, although badly burned, were treated with the latest medical technology as members of the well-known ‘Guinea Pig Club.’
The airfield was closed in 1946, and in 1948 was converted into a motor racing circuit, initially utilising the runways and perimeter track and after much informal racing had taken place.
The circuit hosts a wealth of stories and artefacts that have been hidden from the public eye, including about the Wellington Bomber days and the critical part that the airfield played in the Second World War. Wellington Straight and Hangar Straight on the existing Formula One circuit memorialise this history. Oral history and family memories augment the existing artefact collections, and broaden the appeal. For instance, in 2017, I interviewed Liz Zettle who had first attended the circuit with her husband, who was a Housemaster at Stowe School, and had later volunteered and then worked at Silverstone for several decades, during race days and in the ticket office. Liz was one hundred years old at the time of our interview and her memories of the circuit’s development will be shared, like many other oral histories, through audio-visual displays, along with other important voices. This much longer history should be of interest to those who are not keen on motor racing, and help in developing new audiences. Meanwhile the highly interactive tech zone, with the opportunity to handle the various elements which support the innovation in elite level engineering also provide accessible ways into the collections.
Posts written by Jean or Joanna.