|Samuel Cody: Went up in planes. Died.|
When I live in any particular area, I like to find out - almost as a courtesy - a bit about the local history. Because it's nice to know about where you live.
That's why I found out, when I lived in Caversham, that Paul McCartney and John Lennon played a couple of pre-Beatles gigs in my local pub in 1960, and quite coincidentally the chip shop next door is called Wings.
When I lived in Weymouth, I was utterly fascinated by the Civil War battle for the town, in which locals took one side, while residents of the Isle of Portland took the other, resulting in a lot of nastiness, and the unfortunate bombardment of what is now a public toilet.
Now I'm in North East Hampshire, and while Fleet itself appears to have a dearth of local history, we live on the border with Church Crookham and it's long association with the Gurkha Rifles. The town itself can claim to be an Olympic venue, as it's a little-known fact the the rather run-down Tweseldown race course on the outskirts of Fleet was the venue for the equestrian events in 1948.
The only thing that Fleet's actually known for these days is Fleet Services on the M3, to such an extent that it's the first gag that visiting comedians crack at Fleet comedy club. It's getting to the point that I'm suggesting a QI-style klaxon for any mention of the services on a comedy night, because we've heard it, a lot. Or an old-fashioned tarring-and-feathering, it being the only language these curs understand.
In fact, unless they work there, Fleet Services is the one place in Fleet people from Fleet never go. I mean, what's the point? We have shops and greasy spoon cafes without having to nip down to the next motorway junction and pay extra at our own services. There's rumours that you can get onto and off the motorway through a secret locals-only road through the services, but why would you want to? Now that I've even mentioned that it exists is probably enough to have me declared an enemy of the town.
But Farnborough next door is where it's at. We live under the flight path for Farnborough Airfield, used mostly by Middle Eastern royal families, Tony Blair and rich business types to park their executive jets. Every two years the place becomes one of the word's largest arms fairs, but since the RAE gave way to Qinetiq, there's rarely any pointy planes roaring overhead with big bombs attached. Just the frankly massive Vulcan that nearly took our roof off last year, that's all.
You see, the place is steeped in aviation history. In the last years of the 19th Century, an American showman called Samuel Cody came to these shores, having assumed the same surname as his idol Buffalo Bill, and doing rather well out of the subsequent confusion. On thing led to another, and in 1908, he achieved the first powered flight in Britain at Farnborough, not a couple of miles away from where I'm typing this.
|Whittle Jet Engine: Just a little something a bloke knocked up in his garage near here|
Like many in the early days of aviation, powered flight would be the death of Cody, and so it proved in 1913, when a prototype broke up at 500ft, killing him and his passenger, the cricketer William Evans. Over 100,000 turned out for his funeral in Aldershot, and to this day, large parts of the Farnborough area have the name Cody in his honour. There's also a statue, and a replica of his first aircraft in the aviation museum, well worth the visit.
Then you've got the Frank Whittle connection, the development of the jet engine, the 1952 Farnborough Airshow disaster, and roundabouts with FRICKIN' CAR PARKS IN THE MIDDLE. Also, any town with an area called the Invincible Industrial Estate is doing it right when it comes to naming things. All Fleet's got is Hampshire's largest freshwater lake, which probably powers Farnborough's toilets.
Oh, and Johnny Depp was once seen in a pub in Hartley Wintney. That's historic enough for most people these days.