From a northbound Midland Main Line train, a little before you reach Bedford, you can see two buildings dominating the skyline. You can see them from the A6 road too (especially if you press the “Full screen” button on the top right of the image below). They draw the eye even though, from here, they are some 2.5km away as the crow flies.
It’s no surprise that they’re such a local landmark, given their huge size. These are behemoths of buildings, 247m long, 84m wide and 55m tall. Yet unlike most buildings of this size, they contain no floors apart from the ground. There are no pillars or supports within the full-height ‘naves’ which take up most of the buildings (there are enclosed workshops at either side). They circumscribe nothing more than pure, mind-melting space. These are vast containers of enclosed, uninterrupted air. Standing under the trainshed at St Pancras and being awed by the roof high above (30m tall and 210m long for the original roof and excluding the new extension) is nothing compared to contemplating the vast scale of these two buildings, each capable of swallowing a major railway station with room to spare. You could park three Airbus A380s nose to tail within the hangar. And then another three on top.
The reason for their construction has long since vanished. And while many notice them, few seem to know what they are. They are some of the last remains of one of the great, romantic, lost, and nearly forgotten modes of transport.
These buildings are the Airship Sheds at Cardington.
The airships, the liners of the skies. Between the two world wars, long distance passenger flight wasn’t feasible on the heavier-than-air aircraft we are so familiar with today. The answer was the airship, (or Zeppelin as the Germans, amongst the keenest developers of the technology, called them). With lightweight metal frames, filled with gasbags of hydrogen, streamlined to slip through the air, and shrouded in fabric, these fragile but glamorous giants were the only way to make long distance journeys across the seas if you wanted to travel more quickly than by ship. Even then, it wasn’t fast, with a Europe-America trip taking 4.5 days (compared to a week or so on an ocean liner).
It was exclusive, too. The last of the great British airships, the R100 and R101, could carry only 100 passengers at a time. These two airships were intended as proofs-of-concept for a planned service which would connect key points across the British Empire. The technology was at the cutting edge of what was then achievable. The lift which could be generated by the gasbags was limited, which meant that weight on the airships had to be saved wherever possible, using wicker furniture and walls made of stiffened fabric. The interiors were modelled on ocean-going liners, the only comparable mode of transport, and came complete with promenade decks, albeit inside the airship with windows to look out onto the world (see the interior of the R100 here and the R101 here). The gasbags, filled with highly explosive hydrogen, were an obvious safety issue, though not one which was easy to solve. The Germans were particularly keen to try helium as an alternative, but it was much more difficult to come by, and had lesser lifting capabilities. Following the fatal crashes of the R101 in 1930 (which ended British interest in such craft, and the planned Imperial Airship Service) and the Zeppelin Hindenburg in 1937, the age of the airship as a passenger carrying mode of transport came to an end. Newsreel pictures of the tangled wreckage of the R101, and of the Hindenburg consumed by fire, her skin burning away as she falls to the ground, still have the power to shock, and destroyed the reputation of airship travel.
But for some of us, there will always be something wonderful about the concept of airship travel, if only it had been safer, if only helium had been used from the beginning. How romantic to glide leisurely over the world’s great cities and sights. With slow approach speeds, and no need for runways, airships had the most extraordinary ability, at least in theory, to bring you to the heart of your destination in a way that aeroplanes have never managed. The docking mast for airships in New York was intended to be the Art Deco masterpiece which is the Empire State Building. Unfortunately, building-generated turbulence was less well understood in the early 20th century than it is today, and updrafts around the building made it unworkable in practice. Mooring masts for airships were typically to be found at military facilities like Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, USA, and RAF Cardington in Britain, from where the R101 began her final journey to India, only for it to end prematurely in northern France.
The Airship Sheds at Cardington were the birth places and home of the R101 (Shed 1) and the home of the R100 (Shed 2). And sheds they are. Aeroplanes live in hangars, airships live in sheds. Shed 1 (the northernmost of the pair) was built at Cardington in 1916-17 by A J Main and Co., and had been used for building smaller airships which the British Admirality wanted to use against the threat from submarines, before it was enlarged to its current size in 1926-7 to house the construction of the R101. Shed 2 was originally constructed at Pulham in Norfolk in 1916 by the Cleveland Bridge Co. for building and housing coastal airships, and was moved to Cardington in 1928 to house the R100, being enlarged in the process. The R100 was built by private-sector aeronautics company Vickers, while the R101 was built by the nationally-owned Royal Airship Works.
They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and indeed little thought was given to the outward appearance of these structures. There are other airship hangars around the world which are more obviously attractive, and still others which were even more so, which have since been lost. But the Cardington sheds are my local ones, inasmuch as they are in the same country as I am. They rely for their visual impact on their sheer size, and sheer functionality, rather than in any particular decoration (they are clad, modestly, in corrugated steel sheeting) or considered shapeliness of form. But in embodying pure function, somehow these two giant buildings achieve beauty as well.
There is something enormously pleasing about their sloping, hill-like flanks; something charming about the clerestory roofs; and something magical about the interplay of the beams which criss-cross the interior walls and support the sheds.
The west end walls of the buildings are in fact doors, the full height of the buildings, which part to allow access and egress for airships nearly as immense as the sheds themselves. The R100 and R101 had internal volumes of some 150,000m³ (as a handy comparison, a Boeing 747 Freighter’s internal freight volume is about 780m³, though all of that is useable space whereas an airship was mostly gasbag, but still…these were enormous things to be floating about in the sky).
After the crash of the R101, the R100 was broken up within Shed 2 for scrap, and the sheds were then used for storage. During the second world war, their immense size made them an ideal location for manufacturing and storing barrage balloons, as you can see above, as well as training balloon operators. The picture below also shows the inside of Shed 1, filled with such balloons. Look at the size of the trucks, and think how small a person would appear next to one of these rugged vehicles. And then mull over how small the trucks are compared to the vast scale of the shed…
After the war, Shed 1 was used for weather balloons, and then in the 1970s, Shed 2 gained an unexpected lease of life as a fire research station. Its huge size made it the ideal place to construct whole buildings, which could then be burnt down under controlled conditions. More recently, it has been leased to film studios Warner Bros, with scenes for movies such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy filmed there.
Both sheds are listed at Grade II* (between the internationally significant Grade I buildings, and the much more common Grade II for nationally important buildings) by English Heritage, gaining their designations in 1982. While Shed 2 has survived in good condition in the care of its unusual roster of owners, Shed 1 (the original Cardington shed, you’ll recall) fared less well. Its structure deteriorating as the corrugated steel plating failed, it was placed on English Heritage’s “Heritage at Risk” register, where its condition was described as “very bad”. But the good news is that the shed is even now being restored, its steel sheeting removed to expose its impossibly slender skeleton. Shed 1 is the only surviving in-situ pre-1918 airship shed in the whole of Europe, and it deserves some tender loving care.
Shed 1’s listing record: here.
Shed 2’s listing record: here.