Most of the time when people talk about the golden age of some transport mode or other, they’re talking total rubbish. They’ve been lulled into a false sense of past greatness by rose-tinted nostalgia goggles (and yes, I know that I do it too). There never actually was a golden age of rail travel. The steam railway was slow, dirty, cold in the winter, ran erratically or infrequently or both, lost money hand over fist, and also used fossil fuels in a highly inefficient manner. Post-war buses might have looked splendid with cream scoops over their wheel arches, but they tootled along A-roads we’d now consider to be little better than country lanes, taking an absolute age to get anywhere. Today’s express coaches, utilising the motorway network, might be rather more prosaic, but they’re a lot more use in getting from place to place.
When it comes to air travel, however, I do seriously wonder if there actually was a period between the wars that was qualitatively better than flying on today’s low-cost airlines, so degraded has that experience of flying become. Can there be anyone who actively looks forward to navigating their way through a labyrinthine airport terminal into which no daylight penetrates, shuffling through increasingly offensive layers of security searches busy defeating the last terrorist atrocity instead of the next one, before being crammed into a high capacity aeroplane, knees hard up against the seat in front? Well, more power to you if you do, but if you flew in the inter-war years, chances are you would do so from a gorgeous airport terminal, or someone would have built a check-in terminal in the middle of the city for you, or your aircraft would take off from the sea itself.
It’s hard to conceive of as an air passenger today, but if you visit one airport on the south cost, you’ll find a reminder of a time when catching a flight was comprehensible, stylish, and basically a proper adventure.
Shoreham Airport terminal opened in 1936, and is amongst the very earliest purpose-built airport terminals in Britain. Aviation is a thoroughly 20th Century innovation, developing far more quickly than any other transport mode which had come before it. In doing so it was an early example of the trend for accelerating change which marked the rest of the century. The Wright brothers’ first flight took place in 1903, and lasted less than a minute. Yet just 33 years later, it was possible to catch scheduled flights from Shoreham Airport to mainland Europe, as well as other locations within the UK. It wasn’t precisely a mundane experience, because air travel was the preserve only of a select few, but it was recognisably air travel as we understand it. In just another 16 years, BOAC would put the first jetliner into service.
In contrast, 33 years after Richard Trevithick’s first steam locomotive hauled a train in 1804, only a handful of railways had been built in the UK, while trains and stations looked incredibly primitive. Another 16 years would take you to the great railway mania, but a railway still operated by steam locomotives and in the middle of a disagreement over what gauge railways should be built too. The earlier canal network took even longer to build.
Shoreham Airport terminal was designed by R. Stavers Hessell Tiltman (1888-1968) in the Streamline Moderne style which was popular at the time in Britain, and also used extensively on railway buildings, as long-time readers will know. It’s a curvilinear building in which a tall central block is flanked by lower wings, a common arrangement on Streamline Moderne buildings.
The middle of the three-storey central block features a super clock just over the main entrance, and above this are two windows behind a chevron pattern metal grille. Above that is a relief sunburst, thoroughly of its time. You can just imagine a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce drawing up and disgorging its wealthy passengers into the terminal. Don’t be fooled by the strangely modern-looking control room right at the top of the terminal building. It’s a later addition, built in 1987. It provides better all-round visibility than the old control room immediately below, but you can see how the building would have been better proportioned in its original configuration.
Once inside, the building is full of stunning original period details. The central part is open to the first floor, where a balcony runs around the entrances to various offices. The parapet has streamline fluting running around sumptuous curved corners, and above that is some beautiful wave-moulded plaster work. Extra light is drawn down from skylights with geometric spacer bars, and between them is a dome decorated with two moulded aeroplanes.
Downstairs, the beautiful doors are original, as is the wooden parquet flooring, and there’s a fluted cornice too. The double staircase retains its original checkerboard mosaic tile work, marking out the edge of the stair treads. The sheer detail is both staggering and highly evocative; it’s like stepping back into the 1930s. No wonder then that it appeared on that most Art Deco of TV series, ITV’s Poirot.
Unlike a modern airport terminal, it’s not a large building. As you come in through the front doors, you can see out through the other side of the building to the airfield, just as passengers in the 1930s would. No endless diversions through carbon-copy duty-free shops then, just the sight of your aeroplane idling on the apron, doors open and ready to welcome you inside. Such easy understanding of the relationship between passenger, aircraft and building was lost as airport terminals grew larger in the post-war period, up until Stansted Airport marked a new trend for more legible airport terminals.
The survival of Shoreham Airport terminal has sometimes seemed a bit of a close run thing. The building had several leaseholders during the last few years, all of whom seemed to struggle to sustain business operations as well as secure the fabric of the historic building. It was given Grade II* listed status in 1984, which requires the preservation of historic features. However, things seem to be on a stable footing since the airport’s lease was transferred to Brighton City Airport Limited in May 2014 (see more here), and the airport now carries that name. Sadly, only a year later, the airport was in the news for all the wrong reasons following the fatal crash of an aircraft performing in the Shoreham Airshow.
It would be wrong to end on a negative note though. When I visited earlier this month, the Hummingbird restaurant was doing a roaring trade, and on a dry day you can sit on the terrace on the airside of the terminal and enjoy your food and drink while watching the airfield at work. It’s a world away from the security concerns which have seen the viewing galleries at major airports closed down. The airfield is now used for air-taxi services and flight school activities rather than scheduled flights, but it has one other notable use too. It has recently hosted an annual music festival called Wild Life, with sets from artists like Ice Cube, Busta Rhymes and De La Soul. And no, I don’t know who any of them are either, but how wonderful that a place that oldies like me find so appealing is ensuring its future by running events pitched at people who do.
Interestingly, if you like Streamline Moderne architecture, one of the locations you could fly to from Shoreham Airport in its early days was Liverpool’s Speke Airport. That airport’s terminal building opened three years after Shoreham’s, in 1939. It was another fabulously stylish Streamline Moderne building, but evidencing the rapid development of aviation, Speke’s terminal was much bigger. It also survives, though not as an airport terminal.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Brighton City Airport’s official website, here
…and anything linked to in the text above.