Barnstormers. A word that will register on the metaphorical internal Geiger counter of anyone interested in aviation history. And a word one wouldn’t necessarily expect to see as the name of a pub in a suburb of a town in northern Britain.
The name stands out among the more run-of-the-mill Red Lions, White Harts and Railway Inns, as does the pub’s sign high on the wall, a little red biplane towing a banner with ‘Barnstormers’ on it.
The pub’s location. on Lostock Lane in Horwich outside Bolton, is far removed from somnolent American Midwest towns where, during the Roaring Twenties, pilots set down their aeroplanes and enthralled locals with their flying circus antics.
Nearby, the M61 motorway and the train line between Manchester and Preston pass through and just along the road from the pub there’s a big steel works where structures were built for the O2 and the Olympics stadium in London, Blackpool’s Big One rollercoaster and airports in Paris and Hong Kong.
Why the name then? It is, quite simply, a nod to the link between this unprepossessing northern road and the aviation world. For directly across the street from the pub, there once stood a de Havilland propeller factory – reputedly the largest aircraft propeller plant in Europe when it opened in 1937.
After the Second World War, the factory moved into producing missiles and was part of what eventually became British Aerospace Dynamics. Later, after BAe sold off its weapons systems business in the 1990s, the aerospace presence on the site diminished in size, although an MBDA factory remains. Much of the old site has been redeveloped into business units.
Driving along Lostock Lane and past the old factory’s entrance, there aren’t, apart from the Barnstormers pub, many clues to the aviation connections of this place. Neither is there a clue to the fact that every summer up to the turn of the century, on the sports ground next to the factory, there took place a unique local event.
A gala and air show, rather more grandly called the Bolton Air Show and Gala in its later years, was put on by the factory’s sports and social club each June. It was one of the largest events in the Bolton area, one year attracting 17,000 people according to the local press.
Entry was a couple of quid. Looking back today at the A5-sized programmes from the event prompts nostalgia. There were stalls, dog agility displays (the ‘K9 Dog Display Team’ appeared one year), arena shows like marching bands and motorbike riders racing through tunnels of fire, and helicopter pleasure flights in a Jet Ranger.
There was a fairground, a mini-steam train, Punch and Judy, donkey rides and you could abseil from towers and crawl under nets on an assault course. The air smelt of cut grass, burgers and fried onions with the occasional bit of ale wafting over from the beer tent. The prevailing sounds were chatter, yelps from the fairground, music from the radio roadshow and the sound of the PA.
In short, the gala was the archetypal local carnival, fete or show. Not without incident either. One year I remember a firecracker went off in a medieval re-enactor’s hand. Quite why he was holding the firecracker I can’t recall, but I do remember the thing going off before he instantaneously dropped his Middle Ages character act, shouted ‘sh*t’ and ran to a first aid tent.
(An aside: Maybe it’s me, but I sense some people today, although by no means all, might regard things like the gala as a bit passé, a bit twee in our latte-quaffing, staring-at-the-mobile, the-internet’s-fast-so-why-isn’t-everything-else culture. But I digress.)
The air show was the day’s highlight. Aircraft displayed over farmland to the east of the sports ground. As air shows go, Lostock was very small, typically consisting of around half a dozen flying displays each year, but nevertheless the venue had appearances by all sorts of aircraft and displays.
There were historic aeroplanes like Spitfires and the world’s only flying Bristol Blenheim and aerobatic teams leaving smoke trails in the sky. There were parachutists, noisy fast jets – most memorably, in 1993, a Harrier – and there were appearances one year by the army’s helicopter team, the Blue Eagles, and the Red Arrows on a couple of occasions.
It all took place at a location in Manchester Airport’s TMA (Terminal Manoeuvring Area) which obviously required considerable co-operation between the display’s co-ordinator, Phil Holt (who provided a radar information and flight information service on the day for the display pilots), and Manchester Air Traffic Control.
As noted in an ‘Operational Briefing’ article published in the programme for the last show in 1999, the ground rises by 600ft within 1 nautical mile of the display area and the Winter Hill TV mast – the principal TV transmitter for much of north-west England – is 3 miles to the north. Likely the location and the display area proved challenging, or at the very least interesting, for the pilots who flew there.
Today, nearly 20 years on from that last event, the ground where the gala was held is now occupied by recently-built houses (the main street on the development is called Harrier Close) and some of the land over which the aircraft displayed is now home to Bolton Wanderers FC’s training ground and academy (the club’s Macron, formerly Reebok, Stadium home is half a mile away to the west).
The developments mean any trace of this local event, and indeed the big BAe factory (known simply as ‘Aerospace’ to some locals), are gone. People go about their business, working at the different companies around and about, Wanderers fans parking up on a Saturday or midweek night before walking the short distance to the Macron for the match.
This doesn’t matter – the world moves on and, as Al Stewart put it, time passages – but sometimes it’s good to remember your local history and memories linger of the times when the air show world came to this corner of Lancashire.
(The pictures on this page were taken by an 8-year-old me back in 1993 so are clearly appalling in their quality, but they are included to give a sense of the venue.)