Things to see and do in Farnborough

RAF Red Arrows flying over Farnborough Air Sciences Trust Museum

RAF Red Arrows flying over Farnborough Air Sciences Trust Museum - Credit: Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST)

The birthplace of British aviation and resting place of Napoleon III, Emma Caulton discovers both the obvious and unexpected on her visit to Farnborough


Having been listed as a must-visit in The Geek Atlas (a guide to places where science and technology come alive), Farnborough could be touted as a getaway for geeks. This is the birthplace of British aviation with the oldest active airfield in the UK, now home to some of the UK’s largest business jet companies and a biennial international airshow (the next one scheduled for July 16-22, 2018).

Planespotters are often seen along the road that skirts the airfield and runs through the ‘Heritage Quarter’ within Farnborough Business Park. This showcases key industrial buildings associated with the development of flight between 1908 to the launch of Concorde, including a 24ft diameter wind tunnel constructed in 1935 where prototypes for Britain’s earliest aircraft were tested and the striking skeletal frame of a restored airship hangar, soaring cathedral-like. The Quarter is also home to the National Aerospace Library, based in RIBA award-winning The Hub and one of the world’s most extensive libraries devoted to the development of aeronautics (open Tuesday to Friday), and Farnborough Air Sciences Trust Museum (FAST), in the original HQ of the Royal Flying Corps (open weekends and bank holiday Mondays).

FAST was formed in 1993 to safeguard Farnborough’s aviation heritage and tell the story of the town’s unique contribution to air science. Richard Gardner, Chairman, explains: “No other single site in the world has contributed more to aviation research and development, changing forever the nature of warfare, the way the world has opened up to mass air transport and the global connectivity that has been enabled by orbiting space satellites. The museum reflects all this story.”

The town’s association with aircraft began when HM Balloon Factory was established here in 1908 (chosen for its proximity to open heath and Aldershot, home of the British Army). This was the same year Sam Cody made the first powered flight in Britain at Farnborough, flying just over 304 metres. Most of the aeroplanes built during World War I were constructed at the Royal Aircraft Factory in Farnborough. During World War II work in areas such as bomb sights and rocket projectiles was undertaken here. After the war Farnborough became established as the world’s foremost aerospace research and development institution, covering the design of new engines and aircraft and every type of aeronautical innovation.

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Farnborough juxtaposes two different worlds. There’s the futuristic hi-tech Farnborough that has grown up around the airfield. Then there’s the ‘everydayness’ of the town centre with its retail park, shopping malls, weekly markets and occasional event (such as Farnborough’s first world food fair). While it is useful for residents, with the likes of Good Taste Bakery, Prezzo, Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe, gym and recreation centre with swimming pool, it’s not really a visitor destination.

East of the town, however, where Hampshire borders Surrey, is another world: a water world with river, canal and gravel pits. Here, tucked down an unmade track, you’ll find Kingfisher on the Quay – an American-style waterside diner. It’s popular so you may have to wait if you want a table on the deck overlooking the lake, but it’s worth it. There’s a boat pulled up by the entrance, painted oars and lobster cages have been upcycled as railings and light shades respectively, and the decorative scheme takes in a bar of corrugated iron with surfboard hanging above. The menu includes tasty small plates, burgers and grills. It’s a perfect spot for watching wakeboarders and glimpsing dragonflies and damselflies among the reeds.


Those feeling energetic can get out on the water. Quays Wake & Ski is right next door with opportunities to wakeboard, wakesurf and waterski, enjoy ringo rides or stand-up paddleboarding (SUP). On Friday evenings and Saturday mornings you can even join SUP yoga sessions.

A different on-water experience is available at Basingstoke Canal’s visitor centre, down a road or two, with café, picnic tables and canoes, rowing boats and pedalos to hire, from Easter to the end of September. There are also boat trips on board the narrowboat Rosebud every weekend (Easter to September), plus Wednesday and Friday during school holidays. Otherwise, stroll along the canal tow path or the Blackwater Valley Path beside the River Blackwater, following the river from its source.

Continuing the theme of retreating from modern life, here’s something completely different. Off a busy roundabout near Farnborough Main station is a nondescript slip road leading to a pair of high, closed gates. Beyond them is St Michael’s Abbey (aka Farnborough Abbey), a Benedictine monastery and Imperial Crypt, built by the Empress Eugenie following the death of her husband Napoleon III and their son, the Prince Imperial, and their final resting place. Every Saturday at 3pm there is a guided tour of the Abbey and Imperial Crypt. Gates open at 2.50pm and the tour lasts an hour (there’s a request for a donation of at least £3 per person). This is a tranquil, spiritual place in the heart of suburban Hampshire. The architecture is described as Flamboyant French Gothic with nods to the Dome des Invalides in Paris. Finish in the monastery shop where you can buy honey and beeswax balm made by the monks. People can also attend summer organ recitals on the first Sunday of the month at 3pm.

Evening, eat and sleep

Farnborough doesn’t major on entertainment, although there’s a Vue Cinema and bowling in Farnborough Recreation Centre. So I’d recommend relaxing at the Aviator hotel. Step through the entrance and blink. The glossy wing-shaped exterior does not prepare you for the experience: it’s as though you have been transported into an arrival lounge from a glamorous bygone age of air travel. First there’s the circular atrium with leather sofas, ottomans and aluminium travel trunks. Second there’s a food and drink experience to suit everyone. Enjoy al fresco dining on the Terrace overlooking the airfield, informal American dining at One Eleven, cocktails and afternoon teas in the sumptuous first floor Sky Bar, or tempting dishes in the award-winning 2 Rosette Aviator Brasserie. The active can hit the fitness studio, the rest can relax with a REN treatment. Then it’s sweet dreams in a comfortable and stylish panelled bedroom.

My Farnborough - Richard Gardner, Chairman, Farnborough, International Air Sciences Trust (FAST)

I was born in Farnborough and both my parents worked in the Royal Aircraft Establishment, so Farnborough’s aviation heritage is in my blood! I joined FAST in 1994 shortly after it was formed to campaign to save the threatened historic aviation buildings at Farnborough, becoming chairman in 2006.

There have been many memorable moments at FAST since we opened the museum in 2003, but probably the highlight was the completion and unveiling of the Cody Flyer replica aircraft in 2008, to mark the centenary of the first powered aeroplane flight in the country here at Farnborough.

A major exhibit in the museum is one of the Whittle jet engines that powered the first British jet aircraft, the Gloster E28/39. The museum contains many hundreds of models, including scores of large-scale wind tunnel models, that show how the supersonic designs of the 1950s and ‘60s led to such iconic aircraft as Concorde and vertical-take-off aircraft, including the Harrier, of which the Museum has a rare two seat version on display.

Only a fraction of the FAST collection is on view at any one time, but displays are changed on a regular basis and include archive videos and photographs, missiles, satellites, simulators, flying helmets, engines and actual aircraft and helicopters.

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