I have mentioned previously here that I was lucky enough to work in Castle Donington for several years. The idea of working in the village would have been exciting for me from a young age, and for those familiar with the place, you will know why.
If you have heard of Castle Donington, it is probably for one of three reasons, and each of those reasons has a particular affection for me.
The first is for the wonderful Donington Park race track. I have seen many races here, on two wheels and four, and even a road race, and the circuit is a tremendously exciting setting for a race. There are all sorts of formulae that race here, and if you have not been, then the circuit is certainly worth a visit.
I have enjoyed watching British SuperBikes, World SuperBikes, MotoGP, BTCC, Truck Racing, Formula Three, GT Racing, and a host of other events here over recent years, including the Donington Historic Festival, where we were lucky enough not only to see Sir Stirling Moss in person, but also taking a car for a spin around the track.
One race that I was not lucky enough to see here in person was the 1993 European Grand Prix. It was an incredible race, won by dominant Ayrton Senna, who managed to set the fastest lap on a lap where he aborted a pit stop and drove through the pit lane. A rookie driver called Reubens Barrichello impressed many that day, holding his own for most of the race in the wet.
As well as the circuit itself, Donington Park also contains The Donington Collection, the world’s largest collection of Formula One cars. It is just incredible to walk around the cars of many of the greats of motor racing over the years, and the Ayrton Senna collection there is special to many people.
The second reason for which you may be familiar with Castle Donington is that it is home to a heavy rock festival. For many years, this was known as Monsters of Rock, then after a brief spell as Ozfest, it has been the Download Festival in recent years. I first attended this back in 1996 where the headlining acts were Ozzy Osbourne & Kiss. It was a fantastic show, with Kiss using more pyrotechnics than most cities would have in their New Year celebrations. Ozzy, on the other hand, had a really big water pistol to soak the journalists near the stage….
I have been many times since, and seen all sorts of bands, most of whom help me relive my teenage years, through The Mission, Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Metallica, Rage Against The Machine, Alice Cooper, Journey, Slash, Thunder, ZZ Top and The Cult. I have even been introduced to some new bands, like The Pretty Reckless, via Download. I have met all sorts of interesting people, and have met up with friends with a common interest in rock music. My favourite act, though, that I have seen here, and probably have ever seen, was Black Sabbath’s performance in 2012. They have long been my favourite band, which always helps, but the ambience and expectation in the audience driven by a state of excitement to hear members of the band back together after so many years was quite something. I think I went back to being about fourteen when I saw them.
As music festivals go, there is a lovely familial feeling about Download, and with Monsters of Rock before it. Although it’s a big festival, there is still a perception that people are all rock fans together and that you are among friends. People have randomly complimented me on my beard, on my old rock t-shirts, and on my general enthusiasm for the music, without a hint of irony. It always feels more friendly than many smaller festivals that I have attended.
The third reason for which you may be familiar with Castle Donington is for aviation in general and bmi or British Midland in particular. There is a rather fine aviation park in the village where visitors can see all sorts of aircraft, both military and civilian. Castle Donington is home to East Midlands Airport, and Donington Hall has been the home of the airline bmi in recent decades. It is an interesting building, with an interesting history. Francis Rawdon-Hastings, the Marquis of Hastings, was born in Moira in County Down. When Donington Hall was constructed, he also had the nearby village of Moira built, making it unusual in England as a place name ending in “a”. He went off to fight in the American War of Independence, and then the French Revolutionary Wars, before becoming MP for Randalstown in the Irish House of Commons, before a move to the House of Lords, where he was discussed as a potential Prime Minister. He served as Governor-General of India, and then Governor of Malta.
The building was requisitioned as a prisoner of war camp in the First World War, and saw the escape of German naval pilot Gunther Plüschow, who became an aviator in South America after the war. In 1931, the grounds became Donington Park race circuit, before being requisitioned again in the Second World War, this time as military vehicle depot & storage area.
In 1971, Tom Wheatcroft bought the circuit and it returned to being a motor racing track, and in 1976 British Midland bought Donington Hall, which became their headquarters in 1982. I started working in Donington Hall in 2007, and spent five and a half happy years there. It was a wonderfully historic place to work, and bmi was a great airline with an impressive history, and was also the first airline with which I flew. That was back in 1993, when I came to England for the first time as a teenage student to film an episode of the television programme Fifteen to One.
After decades of innovative aviation, bmi was bought by International Airlines Group in 2012, and in October 2012 was merged into British Airways. A few of the staff remained to close down the last activities, and yesterday saw the bmi flag taken down from Donington Hall for the last time.
I went to meet up with some of the remaining staff last night after their last day at work, complete with the flag, as demonstrated by Mike and Simon. I was struck by the upbeat and positive mood from everyone who was there, which seemed appropriate given that this was the spirit that embodied the company. Like many places, what really made my time here special was the people. A collection of colleagues became a group of very good friends. I enjoyed my time working with bmi, and I am sad to see it go, as have many of Britain’s smaller airlines like British Caledonian, Dan Air and the likes. Not only did bmi provide me with a job for years, which allowed me to travel and explore some wonderful places, but they also gave me a reason to live near that curiously special village that is home to Heavy Rock, Motor Sport and Aviation, Castle Donington.