Before Heathrow, London's main international airport was in Croydon. It grew out of one World War and was pretty much snuffed out by the other, but inbetween it was the luxurious gateway to Europe and the Empire, and was also the birthplace of modern air traffic control. No planes fly here today, but the terminal lives on as the Croydon Airport Visitor Centre which opens to the public one day a month. And that's the first Sunday, sorry, so you've a long time to wait.
After World War One the airfields at Waddon and Beddington combined, forming Croydon Aerodrome, which opened as London's international airport in March 1920. Flights were initially restricted to nearby European cities, notably Paris and Amsterdam, with Berlin added as a destination a few years later. Conditions on the ground were fairly primitive and so the airport soon relocated to new buildings on freshly-opened Purley Way. Airport House, which was officially opened on 2nd May 1928, became the first purpose-built air terminal in the UK. Its interior provided relatively luxurious conditions for those able to fly, and the hop to Paris soon became the busiest international route in the world. As aircraft design improved so more far flung destinations were served, peaking just before World War Two, which wrested the aerodrome back under military control. Grass runways meant that Croydon's civil days were numbered once proper passenger facilities at Heathrow were established, and the final flight (to Rotterdam) left on 30th September 1959.
Airport House is still an imposing sight opposite the out-of-town Colonnades shopping centre, accessed (by those on foot) beneath a full-size restored De Havilland Heron. A lot of people work here now, as the remaining buildings have been utilised as serviced offices and meeting room facilities. But the volunteers who run the Croydon Airport Visitor Centre have full run of the old control tower, and a few other bits and pieces in the main entrance hall. Entrance is free, although donations are appreciated, and a minor army of ladies and bejacketed gentlemen have assembled to show you round. I was really impressed by the volunteers, many of who had connections to the aerodrome when it was in operation, and was shown round by a sparkly gentleman who must have been in his eighties and was a fount of anecdotes and knowledge.
Much of the airport's story can be told by the photographs that line the walls and corridors. But it's upstairs in three small galleries that a variety of artefacts reveal more of the flavour of life at Croydon. Amy Johnson departed from here on her record-breaking solo flight to Australia, and returned here afterwards to begin a triumphant parade through the streets of London. Because after-dark flights were nigh impossible to navigate, a series of lighthouses was set up between Croydon and the Channel coast, with one at Tatsfield crucially important to ensure planes flew high enough above the North Downs. Winston Churchill took flying lessons here, and nearly lost his life in a crash. And stewards sourced all the food for in-flight catering from local shops, and prepared it themselves before take-off.
Passenger flights to Africa and Australia often involved ground-based legs by train, and could take a couple of weeks, hence timetables only listed dates rather than times. Overnight stopovers at hotels or even military bases were required, which made intercontinental travel considerably more of an adventure than it is today. Nevertheless Imperial Airways were keen to ensure that its passengers were always well catered for, and in the 1930s issued the following list of acceptable clothing to fill one's 'wardrobe suitcase'.
At the top of the control tower there's a have-a-go flight simulator, and a chance to practice your triangulation skills via a method of radio-based location-finding that originated here at Croydon. There's also the opportunity to look out of the window towards Croydon and central London, with Wembley's arch and the Shard clearly visible beyond the adjacent trading estate. Meanwhile back in the main hall the volunteers will have books and postcards and magazines to sell, plus small flight-based toys for any younger shoppers. And there's a fine cafe, the Cloud 9 Pantry, which on open days feeds the visitors and during the week caters for all the workers stationed down the many corridors. It's proper history, this, but it's the older generation of volunteers who make it special.
And what happened to the Croydon Airport after it closed down? A large part was built on to create the Roundshaw Estate, whose streets all have aviation-based names and where the primary school is named after Amy Johnson. But a large portion was left as meadowy heath, creating a particularly attractive open space called Roundshaw Park, which is split between the boroughs of Croydon and Sutton. Part of the airport's original tarmac can still be seen in the grass close to the war memorial on Purley Way. And of course there's the Spitfire Business Park, including the former terminal at Airport House. If certain politicians get their wish, maybe London's current international airport will one day end up the same way.