Bedford's 'emotional and heart-warming' airship project opens

By Alex Pope
BBC News, East

Published
image source, The Clarke Family
image captionDonald Ralph Clarke and his brother Reginald Clarke by the R101 in 1930

The granddaughter of a man who worked on and became a historian of the airship industry says a new exhibition he inspired has left her "emotional".

Emily Alleyne, from Bedford, features in a new audio-visual artwork, Escaping Gravity, by Mike Stubbs, that captures Den Burchmore's personal story.

It is the centrepiece of a new exhibition called Airship Dreams at the town's museum, The Higgins.

It aims to celebrate the area's 100-year-old airship industry.

image source, Burchmore Family
image captionDes Burchmore in his shed where his airship memorabilia was stored

Mr Burchmore worked at the former RAF Cardington, whose two hangars still dominate the landscape to the south-east of Bedford, and on his retirement became the curator for the Airship Heritage Trust collection of artefacts and memorabilia.

The collection was stored at Cardington, but its hangars (known as Shed 1 and Shed 2) are now used by the film industry, so the items were transferred to the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Somerset.

Mr Burchmore died earlier this year and his own private collection is in the new exhibition, including his shed, which was specially reconstructed.

image source, Bedfordshire Archives
image captionWork assembling the R101 began in Cardington's sheds in the late 1920s

Ms Alleyne said: "It's very, very, emotional; he was so passionate about airships and the history; he had so much information and knowledge to share; to see it here is really heart-warming.

"The profile [of airships] needs to be raised, Cardington sheds are such a massive piece of our landscape, not everyone really realises and understands the history and the connection Bedford gave to the rest of the world in terms of flight and pioneering airships."

Ami Aubrey, programme producer for Bedford Creative Arts, which commissioned the exhibition, said: "We really need to capitalise on it and this could be the elevator to bring it to everyone's knowledge".

image source, Andy Wilsher
image captionEmily Alleyne by her grandfather's reconstructed shed

Mr Stubbs, who was brought up in Bedford, was the lead artist on the immersive, large-scale cinematic video installation and he hoped it would eventually tour abroad.

"When art gets really good it becomes universal," he said.

image source, Jamie Bubb
image captionMike Stubbs, worked on the Airship Dreams project for four years
image source, Escapaing Gravity
image captionThe Cardington sheds, that still dominate the Bedfordshire skyline, feature in Escaping Gravity
image source, Google
image captionCardington's hangars/sheds, at 50m (160ft) tall, dominate the landscape to the south-east of Bedford
image source, Escaping Gravity
image captionAnother image of the R101 from the Airship Dreams project

The exhibition also features information about Dream of Glory, a musical about the R101 airship, performed by Sharnbrook Mill Theatre in 1994.

It was co-adapted by Mike Gibbons, from Bletsoe, after he saw his son in the same show by Bedfordshire Youth Theatre, in Shed 1 in 1990.

He said: "The history of the airships is a fundamental part of Bedford and Bedfordshire in the 20th Century.

"It's really important to reconnect with the details and emotion of the story."

The world's longest aircraft, Airlander 10, made its maiden flight from Cardington on 17 August 2016.

Hybrid Air Vehicles, which is developing the aircraft, left the site in June 2018, but the company is still based in Bedford.

image source, Mike Gibbons
image captionThe cast and crew of Dream of Glory outside one of the Cardington sheds in 1994

Alastair Lawson, chairman of the Airship Heritage Trust, said: "The airship history of Bedford is extremely important to the aviation world and to have this interwoven into an art project, along with curatorial items on display from the community is a fantastic opportunity.

"We are hoping more stories will come forward and be shared from families connected with the airship past and local history."

The exhibition runs until 28 November.

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