Diary of a UK Trip, Part 4

Three weeks in the UK

By Julian Edgar

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In the first nine days we’ve seen everything from the most magnificent bridge I’ve ever experienced, to the inside of a Vulcan nuclear bomber’s cockpit, to some quite awesome cars – including the current Land Speed Record holder. Now it’s time for another aircraft museum and a place that combines cars and planes and a historic racetrack…

Day #10

Today we started by driving to Southwold, a little seaside village.

Alexander particularly wanted to go there as it is where the kids' TV series 'Grandpa in my Pocket' is partly filmed. In the early morning darkness it looked a lovely little village, with a nice English pier and a superb lighthouse. To my eye it in fact looked about the nicest seaside village in Britain – probably why the series is filmed there!

From there we drove down to London and looked at the Thames flood barrier. It is not that impressive when static and without a good scale - no doubt it would be very impressive with the gates rotating to the raised position.

We then drove to Greenwich and looked at the Cutty Sark (cost too much to get in so we just looked through the glass)…

…and then the National Maritime Museum. This was surprisingly poor – it was quite small (half of it was closed) and its signage provided little context to the displays. In fact, without Miss Britain III, a 1933 boat with 1000-odd kilowatts at its disposal, it would have been very disappointing.

We then walked over to the Observatory, where we didn't pay to get in (again way too high an admission charge) but thanks to Georgina's superlative eye, sneaked in through a side gate and were able to stand astride the marked 0 degree of longitude.

Impressive architecture here - and also pretty well the first tourists we have seen in Britain!

After that we made our way leisurely through London suburbs to Cobham, a town about 30km from the centre of London but located in rural countryside. The road out of London went through Clapham and Wimbledon – a cosmopolitan area with lots of life.

Day 11

Another interesting day back at museums.

We started the day at Brooklands - the birthplace of competition motoring and the beginnings of many an aircraft.

At Brooklands was built the famous banked (and dangerous) track, opening in 1907. Incredibly, part of the track is still there! You're not supposed to go on it (well, you're warned of the dangers of doing so), but we walked on it, and the top part is simply too steep to walk up (when it is covered in moss, anyway).

Also present at the site is a very interesting, albeit small, car museum. It includes the 1933 Napier-Railton, a very impressive racing machine that holds 47 world speed records. When examined in detail, it’s a superbly engineered car.

And the aircraft... wow!

There's a Concorde (yep, another!) and…

…even better, there're also sections of Concorde wings and fuselage that were used for original stress testing! The assembly is just stuck outside in the rain, gradually corroding away.

You can still see the strain gauge attachment points…

… and as it's a cross-section, you can see all the internal construction of the aircraft as well. Boy is it ever internally strong around the windows - they sure didn't want another Comet.

They built WWII Wellington bombers at Brooklands, and there is a Wellington there without its fabric skin. You can see all the geodesic construction - it is even more fascinating in the reality than pics I have seen previously. (Surely Barnes Wallis didn't do the full stress calculations as such? Each fuselage would have literally thousands of members, organised  in a 3D truss.)

In the same hanger there's another Barnes Wallis design - a bouncing bomb of the type used in the famous dam busters raid.

We also got to see inside the huge vacuum chamber used in the 1950s and 1960s for testing aircraft parts and cabins at high altitudes, and also used as the vacuum generator to create high airflow speeds (many times the speed of sound) for testing small models in a linking chamber. We were lucky: the guide took a shine to us and let us past the barrier to the chamber door.

Within the Brooklands grounds is also an urban bus museum, tracing the history of London's buses from horse-drawn carriages to the present. It was very good.

Brooklands is a really evocative place, with many of the original buildings intact. When Alexander and I used the (original) toilets, I pointed out to him that Malcolm Campbell may have pee'd just where we were peeing! He was genuinely thrilled.

I rate Brooklands very highly.

From there we went to the 'Mercedes Benz Experience', which is next door. This is basically a glorified car dealership with a three level showroom featuring some nice old Mercs as well as current models, and a short test track next door to impress the potential customers.

It was, we decided, more for people who aren't car enthusiasts but perhaps are instead fashion enthusiasts. Weirdly, the older cars on display are restored to a higher level of perfection than I am sure was present in the original cars! Georgina bought as a present for our old Merc a Mercedes air freshener.

From there we went to the RAF museum in the north of London.

We have now seen so many aeroplane museums that we thought that, while this was good, it was no longer outstanding.

One thing they did have though was Gloster Meteor and a Messerschmitt ME262 (effectively the first British and German jet production aircraft, respectively) located side by side, together with their different jet engines displayed next to them on stands!

It was awesome, especially as the German design uses axial rotating assemblies and the British engine uses a combination of centrifugal and axial blades - and so was much fatter than the German engine.

The German engine really does look much superior, although what I have read suggests otherwise. Given that Whittle patented axial as well as centrifugal designs, I am sure he knew what he was doing - one reference suggests that he used centrifugal compressors because they were already well known from Merlin piston engine designs.

Georgina has found a website that makes booking hotels very easy, and we have settled on the Premier Inn chain for all our accommodation - 50 pounds (AUD$77) tonight for a room with a king bed plus TWO singles, decent space, TV, heater, free car parking, etc. So tonight it was just a small journey to our hotel - the RAF museum closes at 6pm and of course it was completely dark by the time we left.

Two day diversion

Day 12 we spent in Dover, and on Day 13 we took a ferry ride to Calais (in France) and back again.

Dover is an exciting place!

It has a harbour much less accomplished than I'd expected (it's just a crescent-shaped breakwater), but the rate of ferry ships coming in and out is simply amazing. We sat on top of the hill (the "white cliffs of Dover") and watched the ships for about half an hour.

There is also a constant stream of semi-trailers coming and going - more than I have ever seen in my life. Alexander counted 72 semi-trailers lined up waiting to go on just one of the ferries - and there were five ferry bays in operation. It appears that freight dominates cross-channel ferry traffic.

The P&O ferry ferry operation is very slick: buses from the terminal to the ship; bus from the Calais terminal to the centre of Calais. We had an older ship going over and the latest coming back - a good service, run well and cheap for foot passengers (about AUD$50 for all three of us return).

Calais was a disappointment - for a city with a population of about 75,000, the city centre is mediocre in... well, everything. Like Coventry, much of the Calais city centre was destroyed in WWII, and again like Coventry, the replacement architecture is pedestrian. We looked at a few old buildings (ie those that predated WWII) but unfortunately, I thought that their exterior designs were pretty awful. (But inside the grand council chambers was good.)

In fact, what struck us more than anything is that Calais appears to be the dog faeces capital of the world. There was dog shit absolutely everywhere….

Next: the best technical museum I have ever seen… we went back three times!

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