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The Past of Portholme
Max Cashback
As a resident in the area it is difficult to long be unaware of that well known feature Portholme, formerly also known as Cromwell's Acres. Portholme is, of course, famous as the largest meadow in England - very large and uncommonly flat. Most of the year you see people and animals walking in the meadow, wild flowers grow and fishermen sit. The greatest excitement usually is a dramatic winter flood. What else can one say about it? Has it always been this tranquil, this idyllic, this dull?

Portholme's past is in fact rather more illustrious. It was for centuries, the scene of Huntingdon horse races. When it was first used for racing is not known, but its very nature must have recommended it as a race track ever since people first lived beside it. Horace Walpole, writing in 1760, described the Huntingdon races as more than a little local affair. They ranked with the Derby as one of the nation's fashionable events of the year.

Portholme's circuit was two miles in circumference. The races began on the first Tuesday in August each year and continued for 3 days. As you can imagine such an annual event was eagerly anticipated by locals as the major summer festival. It really was pretty sophisticated, the course being well endowed with grandstands, footbridges and other facilities and with supplementary activities - fairgrounds, cockfighting, boxing etc. In 1887 six local sportsmen bought Waterloo Meadow at Brampton and created the present Huntingdon race course. This, of course, superseded racing at Portholme.

Portholme now lay dormant for a number of years, apart from occasions of freak weather. Sometimes flooding coincided with severe frosts and consequently the meadow became a huge ice rink. Here a version of ice hockey, known by the local people as "Bandy" was born, being the natural ice development of the then well known street game of "Shinny". Bluntisham was the main Bandy venue and had the local champion team. Portholme was the second popular rink and rivalry was serious among teams from the local villages.

The Bandy season was of course short and all the activity intense. In such severe conditions there was no work available to most of the populace and the social activity served to provide distraction from the widespread domestic hardship.

Portholme gained a new importance in the early 1900s as a consequence of the world being gripped with aviation fever.

In 1903 Wilbur and Orville Wright achieved the world's first powered, controlled and sustained flight by a man-carrying aeroplane. In England, the first flight was made by Samuel F Cody in 1908, flying British Army Aeroplane No.1 which he designed and built. From this moment activity, interest and excitement grew up dramatically.

Bleriot first flew the English Channel in 1909. 1910 saw many firsts - crossing the Alps, two-way Channel flights, crossing the Irish sea - and a plethora of aviation events and race meetings throughout the USA and Europe.

In these fragile early days of flight the great problem for aviators in the country, trying to develop the practice of flying was finding suitable grounds. Flat areas of sufficient size tend to be affected by high, unpredictable winds, or surrounded by hills - less than ideal terrain for fledgling fliers. Measured against these requirements Portholme was hugely attractive and also had the additional extremely important advantage of being accessible to the general public by train. Flying was being established not just as an individual pioneering activity, but as a spectator sport with racing and flying fairs being extremely popular entertainment, with the expectation that many would wish to learn to fly. Portholme's final attribute was that the spectator facilities remaining from its horse racing days were still of value in this exciting new era.

19 April 1910 was a great day locally. This was the day that James Radley made the first ever flight from Portholme and virtually the whole of Godmanchester and Huntingdon turned out to watch. He flew circuits of the meadow - 16 miles in 23 minutes in a Bleriot monoplane to the cheers of the spectators. Subsequently the crowds flocked to see other early aviators trying out the flying machines here.

James Radley and his friend Will Rhodes-Moorhouse, also a pioneer aviator, formed a company, Portholme Aerodrome Limited in 1911 to design and build aircraft at St Johns Street, Huntingdon, adjacent to the site of the present police station. The first locally designed and built aircraft flew from Portholme on 27 July 1911. Unfortunately Radley and Moorhouse had much greater enthusiasm for flying than application to commercial building. In 1912 they had to sell the business to Handley Page to cover their debts. Handleys struggled with the business until 1915 when, to support the war effort, the Admiralty ordered 20 Wight seaplanes to made under licence. Things briefly perked up, but the contract was withdrawn in 1916 with only 4 aircraft completed because they didn't fly very well. Portholme Aerodrome Limited battled on until finally going into receivership on 11 July 1922.

Before the First World War there was a succession of flying events, fairs and spectaculars at Portholme, as elsewhere, contributing to the dramatic advance of aviation from being the stuff of toys and dreams to viable commercial and war waging transportation. During the First World War Portholme was used by the Royal Flying Corps as a training station and even as late as the 1930s it was a venue for flying circuses.

As aircraft became bigger and more robust, flight became less novel and developed into a commercial activity rather than a spectator sport, Portholme lost its relevance. It has now reverted to just being a very flat large area of grass - it still floods as we saw so dramatically this Easter, but doesn't freeze decently any more!

Patrick Hull

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