Pulham St Mary, the village where Pennoyer's School is based, is known for another reason: Pulham Pigs. These weren't pink animals that grunted, they were airships – giant oval gas-filled balloons that could be powered through the air.
Pulham St Mary was chosen as the site for an Airship Station just before the First World War. The land was bought in great secrecy, so that enemies couldn't find out what was planned. False rumours were put out that a racehorse trainer wanted the land, but this was just to throw people off the trail.
Why “Pulham Pigs”?
Apparently, when a local man looked up at a huge early airship floating above Pulham he said, “Thet luk loike a gret ol’ pig!” and the name stuck.
The Air Station opened in 1916 and from then until 1930 airships flew from Pulham. Three sheds were built to house the airships. These were very large indeed, because airships themselves were large. Some of those at Pulham were about as long as three football pitches end to end! And why were they called Pulham Pigs? Well, the story goes that an old Norfolk farmer saw the big beige balloon in the sky and said "Thet luk loike a gret ol’'pig!" ("That looks like a right old pig to me!"). And the name stuck.
Why Airships? and what could they do?
In the early part of the 20th Century, air travel didn’t really exist. A few aeroplanes were in use, but they weren’t big enough to transport larger numbers of people. Designers came up with the idea of using large, powered, gas-filled balloons instead. Underneath the balloons they had accommodation for passengers and also the ‘bridge’ from where the captain would steer the ship.
Airships were also used in war, for example to patrol the North Sea, and to bomb submarines. At Pulham, testing of parachuting took place – basically, you strapped a parachute on your back and jumped out. Not terribly scientific, but it worked. Small fighter planes were also launched from underneath airships!
Airships were successful – for a few years at least. On some of the later airships, up to 100 passengers could be carried, with beds for sleeping, promenade decks, a dining room. British airships were planned to carry people to India, Kenya, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, but before commercial flights could get underway, a number of huge crashes put an end to the plans.
Probably the most famous airship linked to Pulham was called the R34. It made the first two-way crossing of the Atlantic. It took off from near Edinburgh, flew to an airfield outside New York, and then made the return trip, landing at Pulham on 13th July 1919. The two-way trip took 7 days 15 hours and 15 minutes (not including the three day stopover in the US)!
When the R34 arrived in the US, a crew member parachuted down from the airship to instruct the people on the ground how to land the R34 - the Americans had little experience of airships at that stage and needed help in landing techniques.
In 1979, Concorde (a ‘supersonic’ jet that could fly faster than the speed of sound) made the same return journey, for the 60th Anniversary of the crossing. This time, the round trip took just 6 hours 59 minutes. It's hard to believe that the R34's trip was such a major achievement, it made newspaper headlines all around the world. A commemorative cover was issued to celebrate Concorde's crossing (see left)