Familes enjoying a sunny afternoon in Exploratory Park, Brent Cross Town

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Exploratory Park is now open for use from early morning till dusk, daily – just a 12-minute walk from Brent Cross tube station.

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Familes enjoying a sunny afternoon in Exploratory Park, Brent Cross Town

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05 November 2020

When the skies were pioneered from Cricklewood

Black and white illustration of planes in the sky
In 2019 you could get from Cricklewood to Paris by train; in 1919 you could fly from Cricklewood Aerodrome.

Look to the skies at Cricklewood: this used to be the home of Handley Page, aircraft maker and trailblazer in British aviation. 

Handley Page established an aircraft factory at Cricklewood in 1912, where it remained until 1929. Here some of the 20th century’s bleakest years also gave rise to strides of innovation. During World War I, the company’s Handley Page O/100 made its mark as one of the largest heavy bomber planes. 

This plane was developed right here at Cricklewood, just up the road from Brent Cross Town, after the admiralty asked for a “bloody paralyser of an aeroplane”. The O/100 had a wooden frame and a linen-glazed cockpit, with just about enough room for a crew of four or five. In March 1917, the O/100 made its first attack: a single aircraft made a run for a German railway station at Moulin-lès-Metz in occupied France.

Today, the best place to explore discoveries throughout aviation history is the Royal Air Force Museum in nearby Colindale, where you can get up close and personal with several remnants of the legendary Handley Page technology. Here, the engineering comes to life: the RAF Museum has large hangars filled with aircraft, anecdotes from veterans who saw action first hand, and insights into how innovation and global alliances helped shape the world today.

Vintage advert of front of plane
Vintage advert with small plane in the sky
1934 (green backdrop) and 1944 adverts for Handley Page aircraft for the Royal Air Force
Nothing is so inspiring as seeing big works well laid out and planned and a real engineering organisation.

Handley Page was established in 1909 by aircraft designer Frederick Handley Page, and became the first British public company to build aircraft. The necessities of the two world wars meant airplane development was rapid: one moment we had basic single-seater planes made of wood and fabric, and the next, efficient flight machines. But civil aviation benefited from this development too: in the interwar period, Handley Page transformed several of its O/400 planes to carry passengers, running a route between London and Paris. 

“In 2019 you could get from Cricklewood to Paris by train; in 1919 you could fly from Cricklewood Aerodrome,” says Andrew Renwick, curator of photographs at the RAF Museum. That same year, Handley Page’s Atlantic plane flew from Canada to New York City, carrying the first airmail between the two countries. The company went on to develop dedicated passenger liners, and in 1924, the company merged its passenger service with two other regional companies to create Imperial Airways. This was Britain’s first national airline, flying people all the way to Africa and India.

Vintage advert showing map of London and Istanbul with plane in foreground
A 1917 advert commemorates the flight of the Handley Page biplane 2,000 miles from London to Istanbul

Handley Page went into liquidation in 1970, but not before securing a place in aviation history during its 61 years of operation. Wishing to remain independent, the smaller company had been unable to keep up with the competitive aviation sector. But Handley Page planes continued to operate long after that year, with the RAF using the Victor Mark 2 Taker craft until 1993, including in the Falklands and the first Gulf War. 

Handley Page’s swansong was its Jetstream design, which was intended for the American commuter market and taken over by the company that’s now BAE. It’s a stylish plane: it’s the one that Roger Moore is thrown out of mid-flight as James Bond in Moonraker. Appropriately, the Cricklewood Aerodrome site is now home to Britain’s largest film studios, Cricklewood Studios, and the Radlett site is also home to film, hosting Eon Productions of James Bond fame.

To learn more about local aviation history, head to the RAF Museum in Colindale, although check opening times and Covid-19 guidance before you travel. Images courtesy of Aviation Ancestry.