Before the days of package holidays and low cost airlines, back in the early 1900s the thrill of air travel was only available to the wealthy. In 1920 Croydon Airport became London's first international airport when customs and passanger handling facilities were introduced. Today the main terminal building, with its control tower, has been converted into offices and is home to a fascinating visitor centre which is open to the public on the first Sunday of every month.
A visit to Croydon Airport has been in my must do list for a while as the airport features in Agatha Christie's Death in the Clouds (published in 1935). In the novel Hercule Poirot is on a flight from Paris to Croydon Airport when minutes before landing Madame Giselle is found murdered. Incidently in the TV adaptation Shoreham on Sea Airport stands in for Croydon. I've also come across a Hitchcock connection.
Thankfully my arrival was less dramatic that Poirot's and outside the main entrance of Airport House, where the vistor centre is located, is a de Havilland Heron plane.
Airport House was the first purpose built air passenger building in Britain and was designed by the Air Ministry in the 1920s. Although today surrounded by the busy Purley Way and an industrial estate the building is still impressive. It is described by Pevsner, the art historian, as being in a classical style but to me it has an elegant art deco look about it.
Originally, during World War I there were two seperate airfields. In 1916 the Royal Flying Corp, later the Royal Air Force (RAF), commenced flying from Beddington Aerodrome and in 1918 neighbouring Waddon Aerodrome was used for the National Aircraft Factory to test their planes. At the end of World War I the two adjacent military airfields merged to form Croydon Aerodrome and the airport was opened for commercial air traffic.
In 1928 one of the world's first purpose built airport terminal buildings opened there. Throughout World War II it was only used by the military and afterwards it returned to civilian use. However by now it has been superseded by Heathrow and the last flight left Croydon Airport in September 1959.
Visitors can see inside the former booking hall where passengers would have checked in. There are Croydon Airport Society information boards which provide photos and text about the history to the site, film footage to watch and a model of the former airport. There is also a small cafe which serves reasonably priced sandwiches, cakes and hot and cold drinks.
The former booking hall is very stylish with its beautiful glass domed roof and an upper gallery with geometric patterned railings.
Upstairs on the way to the control tower is a small museum which is full of wonderful memoriabilia.
In 1930 Amy Johnson became the first female pilot to fly solo from England to Australia. She departed Croydon without much publicity in an attempt to break the light aeroplane record for a solo flight to Australia. While she didn't break the record she gained the distinction of being the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia and on her return to Croydon she was greeted by a huge crowd.
Amy had the flight bag, pictured above, with her in 1941 when she made her last flight. Her plane went off course in adverse weather conditions and crash landed in the Thames Estuary. While her bag was recovered sadly Amy's body was never found.
I loved the selection of aircraft seats, above. The wicker chair in the centre of the photo, was very typical of the earliest seating which were very light and usually made out of wicker or Lloyd Loom. They had no safety belts and didn't recline.
The floral patterned seat, Pullman style on the right, dating from the 1930s has a wood and plywood frame and lavish cushioning. Again it came with out safety belts or reclining facility.
The blue chair, on the left, dates from the late 1930s - 1940s, made of a light metal such as aluminium and had a safety belt and reclined.
The coffee pot, cups and saucers, above, have the Imperial Airways logo on them. They would have been used on the Silver Wing London Croydon to Paris Le Bourget service in the 1930s. It was on one of these flights that Poirot was travelling on in Death in the Clouds. He or his fellow travellers might have made use of the little box, above, which contained a pick me up for passengers who felt queasy during the flight. The book Cocktails How to Mix Them, above, epitomizes the glamour of early air travel.
In the 1920s Croydon Airport was the first airport in the world to introduce air traffic control and early direction finding by radio was developed there. The control tower staff provided permission and guidance for pilots during landing and take off.
Inside the control tower there are also lot of fascinating information and fun, interactive displays.
In its day the control tower provided clear views over the airport and the landing space. Although the airport has now been replaced with an industrial estate the panoramic views from the control tower are quite extraordinary as you can see as far as the Wembley Arch (left).
In the centre of the photo there is the BT Tower (left) and St George's Tower.
The view of the Shard and the City of London.
If you visit don't forget to walk round the back to see the original control tower with its three large clocks facing north, west and south. Standing in the car park you are in the area where the planes stood to embark their passengers and where in 1930 Amy Johnson boarded Jason, her De Havilland Gipsy Moth aircraft, and departed on her solo flight to Australia.
Croydon Airport has a couple of connections with Alfred Hitchcock. It is reported that Hitch occassionally held script meetings on the roof of the airport. In his film Suspicion, following the untimely death of Beaky, Johnie (played by Cary Grant) tells police that he had dined with his friend at The Savoy and saw him off at Croydon Airport.
I loved my visit to Croydon Airport and if you're looking for a fun and fascinating day out in London I would highly recommend it.
Address: Croydon Airport Visitor Centre is located in Airport House, Purley Way, Croydon, CR0 0XZ.
Nearest Train Station: Waddon Staion. Then it's a 10 - 15 minute walk or bus 289 will take you from outside the station to Croydon Airport. Also East Croydon Station which fast train links to central London and then bus 119 from outside the station to Croydon Airport. Both train stations are in Travelcard Zone 5. (Personally, as I travelled there via Waddon and back via East Croydon, I would say if you're travelling from central London I think going via East Croydon is more convenient, as the trains are more frequent and quicker train times, although from there it's too far to walk and the bus journey is a bit longer than from Waddon).
Buses: 289 and 119. Buses stop outside Airport House/ Croydon Airport or across the road at The Colonnades. Bus routes refer to Airport House under its former name of Croydon Airport.
Car: Parking is free during Open Days
Opening Hours: First Sunday of the month throughout the year. 11am - 4pm with last entry at 3.30pm. Check website for details.
Prices: Free admission, donations appreciated.
Cafe available inside Airport house which it is very convenient and prepares sandwiches to order.
Opposite Airport House is the Food Court at The Colonnades on Purley Way with a number of restaurants.
If you enjoyed this blog post you might like to read about my visit to the RAF Museum.
The author of this blog is a qualified City of London and City of Westminster Tour Guide who leads guided walks combining world famous landmarks with hidden treasures often missed by the crowds.