As British Grand Prix weekend approaches, we take a look at why Silverstone holds a unique place in the world motor racing calendar. The area around Silverstone Circuit is a complex site with a rich and diverse history of settlement and use from pre-historic times. The history encompasses both tangible and intangible heritage values. The geology, topography and landscape have played an important role in shaping and influencing the use of the site. Over time, a very diverse set of populations, has subtly built on a previous use, some of which can be still evidenced at the motor racing circuit today. In this sense, it is one of the most historic circuits on today’s Formula One calendar, and through this wider mediation, the heritage is broadcast to a global audience. However, 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.
Older History around Silverstone Circuit
Straddling what are now the counties of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire, in prehistoric times the area is likely to have been wooded, populated by clusters of hunter-gatherers foraging the landscape. Archaeological 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, and digs continued for over a decade after the Second World War. The area was wooded at the time of the Domesday survey of 1086, and under Royal control. Although the exact date of Benedictine settlement is unclear, it is thought to be before 1133.
The circuit is also close to the Roman Road between Towcester and Alcester. Of most archaeological significance to the site was a monastic house, Luffield Abbey. Today, Abbey is the first turn on the circuit, and Luffield the seventh. Probably because of its position close to Watling Street, an important Briton and Roman road, Luffied could sustain a Priory and an Abbey, probably because of the numbers of pilgrims going to Canterbury and St Albans, and returning after pilgrimage. 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, which today, on the circuit, houses the British Racing Driver’s Club (BRDC) archive, and is also familiarly known as the BRDC Farmhouse.
St. Thomas a Becket Chapel
First of all, note the single ‘t’ in Becket. This can drive local historians crazy, as now, over time the circuit uses two ‘tt’s in spelling Beckett. Language can evolve and change in this way, so it can be worth noting the change. Thomas Becket (1120-1170) when, in dispute with Henry II, as Archbishop of Canterbury over the relative power of the King and the church, was tried and convicted for contempt of Royal authority and malfeasance at Northampton Castle in 1164. A small chapel near Silverstone village was built when, after his assassination, Becket was made a Saint in 1173, and there are other local landmarks bearing his name. Turns at the circuit called Becketts and Chapel Curve commemorate this. Foundations of the Chapel remain close to ‘Chapel ’ on today’s circuit, and have previously lain within the 750 acres of circuit grounds, before some of this land was released in the twenty first century. Meanwhile, sinister sounding Maggots Moor, next to the village of Whittlebury, is referenced in Maggots bend.
From 1711, with the arrival of new Head Gardener, Charles Bridgeman, Stowe Woods, formerly part of Whittlewood Forest, was incorporated into a new landscape design. Stowe was substantial and complex, based on a large number of straight ridings and sinuous paths set in woodland, with a series of key vistas onto local landmarks. Northampton Drive, Stowe Woods and the Ridings were closely integrated with other elements of the Stowe ornamental landscape known as the British Forest style. Stowe House, an independent school and an estate run by The National Trust, has close links with Silverstone, and it is thought that local youths from the school were amongst the first to race around the airfield, well before official racing began.
Wellington Bombers, World War Two and Racing Begins
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. 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 runwaysand perimeter track and after much informal racing had taken place.
Conclusion The Silverstone Experience
The newly launched £19.2 million The Silverstone Experience (TSE) will open its doors in 2019 at the entrance to the circuit, with commanding views from the café area over the infield, as well as parts of the circuit. With half the funds provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the dedicated heritage and archive spaces in a refurbished World War Two aircraft hangar, will aim to ensure that the heritage of Silverstone and post-war British motor racing is interpreted and protected for future generations. The new visitor attraction will use contemporary history and heritage, particularly to inspire young people, by celebrating the circuit and the UK’s position at the heart of the global motor sport industry.
Posts written by Jean or Joanna.