Ground zero for the UK’s aviation industry, Farnborough was where the country’s very first powered flight took place in 1908. The Royal Aircraft Establishment was founded here around this time and would make dozens of innovations over the next few decades, changing the course of aviation history.
This heritage is recorded at the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust Museum, while Farnborough Airport is a private airport and a base for the Air Accidents Investigations Branch and companies like BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin.
The wider Farnborough-Aldershot conurbation has a strong army presence, with museums shining a light on the finer details of field medicine and military logistics.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Farnborough:
1. Farnborough Air Sciences Trust Museum
The “FAST” Museum is only open on weekends and Bank Holidays, but is still obligatory if you’re interested in aviation history.
This is all down to the pedigree of a site where the first high-altitude “space suits”, night vision aids, carbon fibre frames, airborne cameras and a wealth of other innovations were developed.
Even the building is a museum piece, as Trenchard House (1907) was the purpose-built HQ of No 1 (Airship) Company of the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers.
Within are displays of RAE research and development, jet engines, helicopter rotors, scale models and a fully-functioning wind tunnel.
The Cody Pavilion houses a replica of British Army Aeroplane No 1, built by the American, Samuel Franklin Cody.
With Cody at the controls it made the first powered and sustained flight in the UK in 1908.
2. St Michael’s Abbey
After the fall of the French Second Empire Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie fled France and ended up in Chislehurst, Kent, where Napoleon died in 1873. The grief-stricken Eugénie commissioned a Benedictine abbey and mausoleum for him in Farnborough, and this was completed in 1881. Tours of the Flamboyant Gothic abbey take place on Saturdays at 15:00. You’ll pay a visit to the crypt which holds the granite sarcophagi of Napoleon III, Eugénie and their son the Prince Imperial.
The tombs were a gift from Queen Victoria who had a cordial relationship with the Empress.
The church’s reliquary has the thighbone of St Alban, the first British martyr, who was executed by the Romans in the 3rd century.
In the summer you can also pay a visit on Sundays at 15:00 to attend an organ recital.
3. RAE Heritage Quarter
The idea of exploring a business park may not like a lot of fun, but there’s exciting history in the RAE Heritage Quarter by Farnborough Airport.
You could make a whirlwind visit after the Air Sciences Trust Museum.
From the very beginning of the 20th century this was the setting for the Royal Aircraft Factory, and a few listed buildings go back to that time.
Q121 and R133 here are Grade I-listed former wind tunnels where aircraft like the spitfire and concorde were tested.
The impressive Q134, now the Hub, is the former weapons testing facility, developing rocket systems like the Black Knight and Black Arrow.
Most spectacular though is the frame of the balloon hangar dating to 1911. This had to be dismantled when the wind tunnels were built, but has been constructed using the original materials.
4. Basingstoke Canal
The Basingstoke Canal and its shaded towpath curves through Farnborough to the east.
This 31-mile waterway was completed in 1794, linking the Thames to the town of Basingstoke.
Although the canal was never a commercial success and became disused after the Second World War, it has proved very popular with pleasure boaters since it reopened in 1991. You can’t get all the way to Basingstoke as a tunnel collapsed six miles out of the town at Greywell in 1932, but the remainder is navigable.
In Farnborough you can pay a visit to the Canal Centre, just on the eastern edge of town.
You could start a walk on the towpath here, pause for a hot drink at the cafe or board the 12-seater narrowboat “Rosebud” for a cruise on weekends in summer, as well as Wednesday and Friday in the school holidays.
5. Frimley Lodge Park
This 60-acre canal-side park was saved from developers in the late-1980s and is a popular local amenity, winning the Green Flag award every year for its upkeep and facilities.
Along with sports pitches for football and rugby, there’s a pitch and putt golf course, a fitness trail, wildflower meadow, wildlife pond, a community garden, two children’s playgrounds and a miniature railway.
The railway is operated by volunteers and runs on the first Sunday of the month in summer.
A more regular event is the weekly parkrun, kicking off at 09:00 on Saturdays.
6. Museum of Military Medicine
Keogh Barracks, just over the county boundary in Surrey, has a strong military medicine museum with more than 20,000 objects in its collection.
One enthralling exhibit is the carriage used by Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, modified to hold stretchers.
Also essential are field surgery kits from different eras, a box of dental tools used by Napoleon’s dentist on St Helena, the death mask of Rudolph Hess and an antique wooden model of a horse’s leg for trainee farriers (horseshoe smiths). The medal collection is sizeable and includes 23 of the 29 Victoria Crosses awarded to the Army Medical Services.
7. Fleet Pond
One stop away on the train is the largest freshwater lake in Hampshire.
Despite encompassing more than 50 acres, the lake is exceptionally shallow, with a maximum depth of little more than 80 centimetres.
Around the water are marshes, reed beds, woodland (oak and Scots pine)and heathland, all safeguarded by a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The pond itself is man-made, created by damming two streams and recorded as an important fishery probably used by local monks in the 14th century.
You can pick from three walking routes around the water, from 0.6 to 2.5 miles.
The “Long Walk” weaves through Brookly Wood, which long ago was a private garden and so has exotic species like laurels, bamboo and rhododendron.
8. Royal Logistics Corps Museum
The feast of military museums continues at this attraction open Monday to Friday, ten minutes away in Deepcut.
This museums tells you how British Army soldiers have been supplied with equipment, fed, transported and kept in touch with loved ones over the last six centuries.
You’ll learn about how the army requisitioned carts in Medieval times and later established the Royal Waggon Train to supply the army on mainland Europe during the Napoleonic Wars.
This eventually became the Royal Logistics Corps, and there’s an original sabretache, complete with battle honours from Waterloo and the Peninsular War.
The museum’s showpiece is Field Marshal Montgomery’s staff car, a Rolls-Royce Wraith, the first allied civilian car to be brought ashore after D-Day.
9. Aldershot Military Museum
Housed in late-Victorian barrack buildings, this museum tells the story of the British Army in Aldershot, but is also a local history museum with exhibitions on civilian life in both Aldershot and Farnborough.
You’ll find how the military camp developed in Aldershot after 1854 and see reconstructions of barrack rooms from the Victorian period and the 1950s.
Special attention is paid to aviation pioneer Samuel Franklin Cody, with genuine artefacts like his flight helmet, and a reconstruction of his workshop at Farnborough.
Montgomery’s Barn is a structure brought here from Alton in 1996. It was built for the famous Field Marshal in 1947 to house his wartime caravans and now contains armoured cars, heavy guns and tanks.
And as for civilian history, there information about the construction of St Michael’s Abbey and the local drum-making trade at the Rushmoor Local History Gallery.
10. Queen Elizabeth Park
There was a time when this 24-acre parcel of woods and meadows close to St Michael’s Abbey was part of the Royal Windsor Great Park.
Later it belonged to the Farnborough Hill Estate, where Empress Eugénie spent the last 40 years of her life from 1880. Not long after she died the house was taken over by Farnborough hill school, which remains there today.
As for the park, this has a super playground for children, as well as a rare natural feature: There’s a series of temporary ponds, wet or dry according to the season and weather.
You’ll also see a great deal of rhododendron, which has been here since the estate.
11. Farnborough Air Show
This week-long biennial event takes place in mid-July and draws upwards of 200,000 spectators.
The first five days, taking place Monday to Friday, is a trade show for the defence and aerospace industries, and this is followed by a traditional air show for the public on the weekend.
More than 600 retailers and exhibitors set up shop at the public event, while there’s live entertainment, a special family area and dozens of static aircraft to check out.
For most people the main attraction is the flight demonstrations, adding up to five hours across the weekend, by stunt groups like the Flying Bulls, the Blades and the Red Arrows.
The next Farnborough Show is scheduled for July 2020.
12. West Green House Gardens
Anyone who loves country estates should plan a trip to West Green House Gardens not far from Hook.
West Green’s Queen Anne-style house was built at the start of the 18th century by Henry Hawley, who later became famous as the general who led the cavalry charge at the Battle of Culloden (1746). March to October you can make your way around the gardens, which were redesigned in the 20th century.
There’s much to see, like the orangery, formal walled garden with potager, well and fruit cage, a Neoclassical nymphaeum and a picturesque lake fringed by a field that erupts with colour in spring for its daffodils and fritillaries.
Late July is opera season in West Green House Gardens when you can catch new productions of classics and more creative intimate performances.
13. Look Out Discovery Centre
This children’s science attraction is a good 20 minutes away in Bracknell, but is worth going the extra mile if you have children under the age of 12. There are 90 activities organised into zones that correlate with topics a child might be learning in school.
Kids can launch a hot air balloon, test their reaction speed, play with laser beams, watch a colony of leaf-cutter ants at work and design their own house.
The centre is deep in the 2,470-acre Swinley Forest, and outside are picnic areas, an orienteering course and an adventure play area.
14. Southwood Woodland
West of the airport is 80 acres of mossy nature on former Army land, for jogging, family walks or bike rides.
Well-maintained paths beckon you into woodland thick with birch, hazel, alder and holly, while giant oaks mark the boundaries of the meadows.
April and May is a wonderful time to come for a stroll as the forest floor is laid with bluebells.
Keep your eyes peeled for the wood’s creatively-designed interpretation boards, informing you about the mammal, bird and insect species, and held up by creatively carved vertical cross sections of felled trees.
15. Alpine Snowsports Centre
Something you might not have imagined doing in Hampshire is downhill skiing, but there’s a highly rated dry ski centre 10 minutes away in Aldershot.
Alpine Snowsports has three slopes, for skiing, snowboarding or tubing.
If you already know how to handle yourself on a slope you can let off some steam on a free session most days of the week.
The centre also provides ski and snowboard lessons, either one-on-one or in a group, while kids’ parties are also catered for.
The slopes are floodlit at night, and there’s a bar and ski shop on site.