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Britain From Above: Rare aerial photos of Bishop's Stortford, Stansted Airport and Sawbridgeworth from the last 100 years



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A recently launched website gives residents of the Bishop's Stortford area a chance to view rarely-before-seen aerial photos of their home towns and villages.

The Britain From Above site enables visitors to see just what their city, town or village looked like going back through the decades to a century ago.

It offers free access to tens of thousands of images, providing a glimpse from the skies of moments in time captured forever on film.

Bishop's Stortford town centre in 1920 Credit: Historic England
Bishop's Stortford town centre in 1920 Credit: Historic England

Photos of smaller local settlements such as Much Hadham, Albury, Elsenham and Little Easton are featured on the site, too.

From our industrial past to the heyday of classic British seaside resorts, all are captured in remarkably detailed aerial images.

"It's an amazing collection," explains Neil Fraser from Britain From Above. "Some of the views are so familiar and picture areas which have barely changed over the years and in other cases where whole communities are unrecognisable."

The images were acquired in 2007 by the key heritage organisations in England, Scotland and Wales – today known as Historic England, Historic Environment Scotland and the slightly-more-of-a-mouthful Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

The pictures were originally gathered by Aerofilms Ltd, a pioneering company born in 1919 and the earliest days of manned flight. As the UK's first commercial aerial photography company, it cornered a niche market.

Founded by Francis Willis – who had served with the Royal Naval Air Service during the First World War – he teamed up with Claude Graham White, who had started a flight school at Hendon Aerodrome in north London and had the claim to fame of being the first man to make a night flight in 1910.

The pair were onto a winner as they captured a previously unseen view of the nation. Sometimes they flew a little too close to the wind as they snapped buildings protected under the Official Secrets Act, such as Dover Castle. The War Office fired off a letter to Willis informing him that "prison cells were not pleasant".

Undeterred, they continued, and by the time the Second World War came around, Aerofilms staff were incorporated into the Air Ministry's team, becoming a "fully-fledged military intelligence unit". When hostilities ended, it captured the rebuilding of post-war Britain.

Neil Fraser said: "In some of the earliest images you can see people actually looking up as they walk along lanes because, of course, a plane in the sky would have been a relatively unusual sight for many decades of the 20th century.

"I just think the images chronicle so much of the country, whether it's rural or urban.

"As soon as the site went live a few years ago we discovered a lot of interest came from model railway enthusiasts because the aerial imagery of the time gave a perhaps never-before-seen view of quite a lot of famous stations. Ground photography just didn't do that.

"You'll find lots of people interested in it perhaps looking at old football grounds or other sport venues which have since changed dramatically or disappeared. Or they're simply looking for the factory their grandfather worked in.

"Of course, lots of people today use it just to compare how much their local area has changed over the years.

"And those who register can not only zoom in on the images, gaining far greater detail, but can also put flags on the images to share memories of particular areas with other users."

The good news is there's more to come. All three heritage partners which own the collection are keen to digitalise more of the images "but as yet there is no timescale for this work".

To view images of your local area visit the website. Register for free to zoom in on images.

Below are just a small selection from across our area...

BISHOP'S STORTFORD

Bishop's Stortford in 1946 Credit: Historic England
Bishop's Stortford in 1946 Credit: Historic England

This photo from 1946 is a view towards the town with what is now Twyford industrial estate and the railway line in the foreground. The industrial units at the time were those of Millar's Machinery Company, situated right next to Burley Road. You can see the tree-lined Thorley Hill going off to the left and the old Bishop's Stortford Football Club ground in Rhodes Avenue to the centre-right.

Bishop's Stortford town centre in 1920 Credit: Historic England
Bishop's Stortford town centre in 1920 Credit: Historic England

Taken 101 years ago, this view looks south, with Rye Street entering the bottom left of the picture, bending to join Hadham Road off to the right, and North Street through the middle of the shot. The town's old cattle market is clearly visible on the Rye Street/Hadham Road bend, where the Northgate End and Link Road car parks now stand. The conical roof of the Corn Exchange is also visible, from where Host's rooftop bar now operates.

Bishop's Stortford in 1928 Credit: Historic England
Bishop's Stortford in 1928 Credit: Historic England

This shot across the whole town was taken from the east in 1928. Warwick Road (left) and Dunmow Road (right) both enter from the bottom of the picture. In the foreground, construction has just been completed on Wayletts Drive (then Council Road), with Urban Road about halfway finished. The town's rural surroundings are in full view.

Bishop's Stortford town centre in 1928 Credit: Historic England
Bishop's Stortford town centre in 1928 Credit: Historic England

In another 1928 photo you can see the old section of the River Stort – called the Terminus Basin – where Adderley Road and the Jackson Square shopping centre are today. Many of the buildings along South Street and Potter Street have changed, but plenty of the landmarks, like the Corn Exchange and the Drill Hall, are visible.

SAWBRIDGEWORTH

Sawbridgeworth's maltings and train station in 1929 Credit: Historic England
Sawbridgeworth's maltings and train station in 1929 Credit: Historic England

This picture from 1929 shows the Maltings and the town's old railway station across the middle. Leading towards the bottom of the picture is Station Road, which forks with the early construction of The Forebury and even earlier signs of Forebury Avenue.

Sawbridgeworth in 1929 Credit: Historic England
Sawbridgeworth in 1929 Credit: Historic England

This is a wonderful shot across the town, also from 1929. Down the middle of the picture you can see the old A11 Bonks Hill, leading into London Road and then Cambridge Road as it heads north towards Spellbrook. Sayesbury Avenue can be clearly seen, looking like a runway, before Gilders and White Post Field were developed to the west of the town.

STANSTED AIRPORT

Stansted Airport in 1947 Credit: Historic England
Stansted Airport in 1947 Credit: Historic England

Stansted Airport in 1946. The main airstrip runs from the north-east (bottom left) to the south-west in the direction of Bishop's Stortford. The main road running across the shot is the B1256, before the A120 was built. The airfield, which was developed and used by the US Air Force during the Second World War, still has the signs of a fighter plane base and none of the signs of an international airport.



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