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Diary of a UK Trip, Part 3

Three weeks in the UK

By Julian Edgar

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By now on this trip we’ve seen two Land Speed Record cars, been in Concorde, got inside the biggest hovercraft ever made, seen some awesome bridges, checked out the Mallard steam speed record holder, seen inside a Cold War nuclear bunker and sat inside the cockpit of a Vulcan bomber.

Now it’s time for more!

Day #8

Tonight we are in Milton Keynes - finally, a modern, well laid-out city.

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We spent most of the day in Coventry, walking around again this morning to fill in some time before the large transport museum opened. My initial negative impressions of Coventry were confirmed... Interestingly, after the place was destroyed in WWII, they didn't build cheaply and in haste as I had assumed, but in fact carefully planned the new city centre - and were rather proud of it at the time! It's pretty ghastly.

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But the transport museum is a stunner.

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They have the most wonderful collection of bicycles, including what are probably the oldest in the world. It's an eclectic collection, with some bikes featuring shaft drive, others with treadles, and yet others with propulsion systems I cannot even describe.

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Also, many of these bikes and trikes have very interesting suspension systems. Some have even more interesting steering systems, including rack and pinion on a trike! I found it very stimulating looking at the products of designers who didn't bother following what others had done, but instead did what they thought would work best.

The cars in this museum weren't half bad either.

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There wasThrust2 (the previous land speed record holder)…

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…and ThrustSSC - the current Land Speed Record holder and so the fastest car in the world. ThrustSSC is a glorious looking car – but of course to describe it as a ‘car’ is maybe a stretch.

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With revealing candour, the museum also has a hall devoted to decline of car manufacturing in Coventry. I found this a thought-provoking and interesting display.

The Coventry museum is free and absolutely world class – it should be much better known.

From there we went to another car museum - the British Heritage collection at Gaydon. This is the former British Leyland collection and the cars reflect those origins.

But what cars!

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The Rover gas turbine cars…

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…the beautiful MG class record breakers of the '50s (with some of their shapes being wonderful precursors to the solar race cars of 30 and 40 years later) …

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… and Triumph and MG and Rover prototypes I'd never seen before – I was particularly taken with the FWD MG sports car based on Mini underpinnings.

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And, oh yes, yet another Land Speed Record car - this time the Sunbeam of 1927. (That's five Land Speed Record cars we have seen this trip.)

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I was also fascinated by the Issigonis-designed replacement for the Mini (never accepted as he was by then well out of favour with British Leyland management)…

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…and the London-Sydney Austin 1800 rally car (that has some interesting strengthening of the front chassis rails that I photographed from under the car!).

Day #9

Tonight we are at Cambridge. We have not yet looked around the city; we arrived here about 4.30pm, quite exhausted, and went straight to the hotel.

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We are exhausted because we have been to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford.

And what a museum!

It is absolutely enormous: you could literally spend a whole day there, and still not see everything in detail. (We spent half a day.)

It is largely a war transport museum, with missiles, planes, tanks, trucks, boats, a small submarine - incredible.

Highlights for me were:

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…a German V1 missile (on its launch track)…

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…a German V2 missile (in pieces)…

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…another Concorde…

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…but this time one of the Concorde test and development mules, still equipped with all its internal monitoring electronics - we were able to walk though it…

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- a B52 bomber  (too enormous to photograph in the display hall) and an SR71 Blackbird (smaller than I thought it would be – you can stand on the floor and touch the wing)…

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- a Chrysler WWII tank engine - the one they hastily made from 5 six-cylinder car engines, all mounted around a common crankshaft…

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- and an original WWII 1940 flight operations room - the one where in the lower area, the WAAFs pushed around the markers on the map to indicate approaching squadrons of German bombers. (This was quite brilliant, and an interesting feeling for me, having seen the Cold War equivalent just a week or so ago.)

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The displays just went on and on – the equivalent of perhaps five full-size hangars. Fantastic facilities, exemplary signage, extraordinary exhibits. Expensive (around AUD$50 for us) but well worth it.

This morning, on the other hand, was very disappointing.

We went to Bletchley Park to look at where Britain won WWII (or at least shortened it by 2 years) through their breaking of German codes.

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The museum is on the original grounds of the facility, but it is badly done. The site is large, the buildings have no signs, there are all sorts of irrelevantly confusing artefacts also displayed (model boats, 1950s vintage cars, generalist war memorabilia). It appears that private businesses inhabit many of the original buildings, but apart from random 'private' signs, it is hard to work out where you can actually go.

We weren't alone in being confused visitors... lots of people were stumbling around, wondering where the museum started and finished.

The story of what was achieved at Bletchley and how it was achieved is badly told.

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However, they have recreated a bombe (mechanical code breaking machine) that is fantastic…

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…and are recreating Colossus, the world's first digital computer (and a secret until the 1970s). Unfortunately, the signage told me very little about the computer – there’s a far better description on Wikipedia than there is at the recreation itself!

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But how these people at Bletchley Park, these intellectual titans, 70-odd years ago lived and breathed and did incredible things is not told - yet the site itself, with lots of old, decaying huts around a ground mansion, has all the ingredients for what could be a wonderfully exhilarating story.

I haven't mentioned that about a third of the things purportedly on display were closed - including the museum of computing... one reason I went in the first place! Plus to visit the place it was expensive - about $40 for us.

And then when I saw that they were selling the 'Turing Monopoloy' board game...  What next, Whittle Tiddlywinks? Talk about trivialising a hero...

Bletchley Park was our biggest disappointment of the trip.

This morning before we went to Bletchley we went for a walk around Milton Keynes, confirming that we think it is a great place. As a planned, modern city, it reminds us a bit of Canberra. We walked for half an hour around some near-urban lakes, looking at the prolific birdlife - a really nice beginning to the day.

Next – one of the stunners of the trip: Brooklands.

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