Actually, I had two big days out last week. In addition to delivering a Mercedes to Edinburgh (work), I took myself off to the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, in the outer reaches of north London. What a brilliant place and …. it’s all free! Well, apart from a modest car parking charge and fees for some “optional” features such a flight simulator and the chance to sit in the cockpit of a Spitfire. From the earliest planes which look like they were built by budding Blue Peter presenters out of string, cocktail sticks, brown paper and a pair of Val’s bloomers to sophisticated fast jets made from very strong stuff, there are loads of interesting aircraft on view and all brilliantly preserved. The place is huge!
There are some whopping bombers such as (if this means anything to you) a WWII Lancaster, Flying Fortress, Liberator and a Halifax that was dragged up from the depths of a lake plus a monstrous Cold War Avro Vulcan. Lots of fantastic fighters – several Spitfires, Hurricane, Messerschmitt 109, P-40 Kittyhawk (I put one of those in a sandwich once), Meteor, Lightning …… and many more. There is a WWII RAF Coastal Command section (including a Bristol Beaufort and Beaufighter), a helicopter bit and a brilliant World War I exhibition. Phew! Biggles would have loved it. A particular point of interest for me was the Hawker Hunter fighter, the very one flown by a good friend of my father’s (it even sports his name below the cockpit). My father’s friend is the last surviving pilot who flew in the flypast for the Queen’s Coronation in 1953.
So a great, cheap day out and one kids will probably enjoy too (there were some school groups there when I visited and they all seemed genuinely interested). BUT (there is a “but”) … now may not be the best time to visit, especially if you are travelling from a distance. Next year, 2018, sees the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Royal Air Force which became an independent service during the last year of the First World War. Prior to that, those magnificent (and very brave) fighting men in their flying machines were a part of the British Army – the Royal Flying Corps. To celebrate the centenary of the world’s first independent air force, the museum is having a bit of a revamp. One of the big halls (the former Battle of Britain museum) and a small part of another hall are therefore closed. However (on the up side, there is a “however” to soften the “but”) there is still a huge amount of interesting stuff to see. So, if you can’t resist a peek now, go! It’s free! You can always pop back again next year when the revamp is complete. I knew all this before I went but was itching to pay a return visit. I have made several visits over the years, the first as a kid shortly after the museum opened in 1972. And I fully intend to go back next year as well! If all this tickles your flying fancy but north London is a bit far for you, there is another (and also very substantial) branch of the Royal Air Force Museum in Cosford in Shropshire to the north west of Birmingham. Again, admission is free. Cosford majors more on the Cold War era (but not exclusively) whereas Hendon has a large number of World War II aircraft.
Apologies for the quality of the photos (mine are not great at the best of times) but the lighting in the museum was quite low. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
Monday: Range Rover Velar D240 auto, Nottingham to Wakefield, Yorkshire.
Wednesday: Range Rover Velar D240 auto, Wakefield to Nottingham; Mercedes GLC 220d AMG Line auto, Nottingham to Leicester.
Thursday: Mercedes GLC 220d AMG Line auto, Leicester to Edinburgh.
Friday: Vauxhall Vivaro van, Cannock, Staffordshire to Harrow, London; Vauxhall Vivaro van (2013), Edgeware to Camberley, Surrey.
All the way to Edinburgh on Thursday – 300 miles through darkness, dawn, snow, hail and sun, having set out at 4.30 in the morning. Driving the Mercedes GLC back to back with the Range Rover Velar the day before was interesting and showed up how refined the Velar is. And so it should be because it’s substantially bigger and more expensive. The GLC is not a small car but jumping into it after the futuristic looking but grander Velar, it seemed much more fun-sized and positively nimble feeling. The firmer ride enhanced this impression as it was flatter in the corners compared to the slightly wobblier but cosseting Velar. The next day, the GLC grew in size as I set off for Edinburgh and the memory of the Velar faded. It became a comfortable and generally quiet cruiser (no aches or pains after about five and a half hours driving) as it battled through the elements.
OK, let’s not exaggerate. There was a mini blizzard followed by hail around Alnwick in Northumberland and it became quite murky. But it wasn’t the snow Armageddon forecast by the Daily Mail (funny that). Soon I was enjoying the wild scenery of north eastern England, the North Sea coast and, at last, Scotland. After the business part of the day (car wash, deliver car, bus into the city), I had the briefest of walks through Edinburgh – the only city I know of which has a canyon running alongside its principal street (Princes Street). Well, its a very large ditch at the very least, through which the train tracks run. But don’t let that put you off! With Edinburgh’s main Waverly station at one end of the canyon/ditch, right in the heart of the city, it’s all part of Edinburgh’s character. The place has bags of atmosphere and plenty to see and do. When I walked through it on Thursday (around lunchtime), the grand old place was lively and seemed to have a distinct confidence about it.
We last came to Edinburgh, as proper grockles, in 2003 for a long weekend. And you really do need a long weekend to fit everything in, including (deep breath):-
Edinburgh Castle. Everything a castle should be! Dark, forbidding and occupying a commanding position, situated on a rock overlooking the city. Still very complete. I can remember the exact date we visited Edinburgh Castle. It was 24th October 2003. How do I remember that? It was the day of Concorde’s last ever commercial flight. Three Concordes flew into Heathrow Airport from three different locations, one of which was Edinburgh Airport. From the walls of Edinburgh Castle, we saw Concorde fly over the city and say its final farewell. Makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up just thinking about it. What a beautiful aircraft. A little loud maybe, but stunning.
Arthur’s Seat. A very large hill barely a caber toss from the city centre. A visit to Edinburgh has to include a hike up Arthur’s Seat. Why? Because it’s there. And the views from the top are fabulous.
The Royal Mile. The historic main thoroughfare through Edinburgh’s Old Town comprising a succession of old streets, closes, nooks and crannies. Discover museums, shops, restaurants and, at festival time, loads of entertainers and buskers. The Royal Mile runs downhill from the castle to the equally historic Holyrood Palace (many things in Edinburgh are historic) and is, you will be surprised to hear, one Scots mile long. A Scots mile is the distance covered by 12,000 haggis laid end to end and is slightly longer than an English mile (12,000 Yorkshire puddings). It looks like the Royal Mile is going to survive the UK’s stay in the EU without being renamed the Royal One Point Eight Kilometres.
The Camera Obscura (literally, “the dark room”). This Victorian curiosity is actually a giant pinhole camera. You go in the turret-shaped dark room for an unusual city tour. A revolving lens at the top of the turret focuses light – and an image of city – down on to a large round white table. Your guide moves the lens around to pick out different parts of the city and, of course, it is all alive with miniature images of people, cars and buses all going about their business. On your climb up to the Camera Obscura, you pass through the World of Illusions – six floors of interactive optical exhibits to play with and learn (you’re never too young for that).
Royal Yacht Britannia. Moored in the rejuvenated Leith dock area, the Royal Family’s biggest ever toy provides a fascinating tour of a real piece of recent British history. It’s opulent and homely all at the same time. Our kids (about 7 and 5 at the time) loved it too. They had their own audio guides with special kiddies’ commentary. They sought out each numbered board dotted around the boat, pressed the corresponding number on their audio gadget and listened avidly to each and every bit of commentary. At no time before or since have they ever done that at any other attraction. As adults, my wife and I had an equally enthralling commentary. Oh, how HMQ and Prince Phil must miss the old tub.
The Edinburgh Festival. If you happen to be in Edinburgh in August, lucky you! Loads of culture, opera, plays, comedy and stuff. In fact, it’s the largest arts festival in the world. My wife and I were there in about 1986 BC (Before Children) and saw two very bizarre plays in tiny venues. If you don’t want to part with any cash, there are loads of street artists who could keep you entertained all day (but I’m sure they would appreciate a few groats for their trouble).
After my all too brief visit to Scotland’s capital city, I was whisked back to Leicester by train (well, I should have been whisked but there was the inevitable delay, missed connection and more delay). However, the first leg of the journey from Edinburgh to Newcastle was a joy. The train line runs close to the coast and, compared to driving, I was better able to enjoy the scenery. As well as a lot of greenery, rolling greyery (the North Sea) and bleak whitery, I spotted several landmarks such as Berwick Upon Tweed and its bridges, Torness Nuclear Power Station, Lindisfarne (the Holy Island) and a quaint looking town lying at the mouth of a river. Thanks to the wonder that is Google maps, I was quickly able to identify this as Alnmouth. Oh, and there was loads more snow on the way home, in Northumberland, but I heard no reports of the world ending when I got home.
Plane sandwiches?? Let me explain. In my family, I have a reputation for being very fussy and taking far too long to make a sandwich. I call it loving care and thought in creating tempting bread-based snacks. A sandwich is not a sandwich unless the filling has a minimum of three ingredients (which, for the benefit of any American readers, is considered extravagant in the UK). I realise now that I missed my calling in life. I should have been the catering manager on the set of Scooby Doo. I would have been in my element constructing those three foot high sandwiches which our four legged hero would wolf down in one gulp while being chased through the abandoned fair ground/factory/creepy house by the former janitor/boss/security guard sporting a rubber monster mask or wrapped head to toe in bandages.
A few years ago I went through a phase of directing all that love and care to the production of epic sandwiches for my wife to take to work. However, she has far simpler and less sophisticated needs when it comes to food (she hails from Birmingham*; I don’t know why I felt compelled to mention that). The last straw came with some beautifully crafted roast chicken, mayonnaise, sweet chilli sauce and salad wraps. Being of the “eat to live” rather than “live to eat” persuasion, she complained: “There’s too many ingredients – can’t I just have a plain sandwich?”. Now, by pure coincidence, I had been flicking through a large reference book about a week or so before when some long-forgotten 2D cardboard cut-outs of World War II aeroplanes fell from the pages. They would have formed a mobile to hang from the ceiling of a young aviation enthusiast’s ceiling had such a person lived in our house. I’m an old aviation enthusiast and probably a bit beyond that sort of thing (and in any event, my wife wouldn’t let me hang it in our bedroom).
The germ of an idea grew in my mind. If my dearly beloved wants plain sandwiches, plane sandwiches she shall have (see what I did there?). I have to say, they were much quicker to make. Two slices of bread, a scraping of low fat spread and a sprinkling of P-51 Mustang and P-38 Lightning, all topped off with a P-40 Kittyhawk (still three ingredients, you’ll notice). The aviation savvy amongst you will notice I went for the “lite” option with fighters rather than bombers.
“What sort of sandwiches have I got today?”, my wife enquired. “Plane sandwiches, just liked you asked for, dear.” Fortunately, she didn’t notice the difference in spelling when I said “plane”. She was blissfully unaware until she sat down in the staff room at lunchtime (she’s a teacher, by the way) to tuck into her simple fare. Oh, how her colleagues laughed when a wingtip peeping out of her sandwich piqued my wife’s curiosity and she peeled back the top slice of bread to reveal ….. a plane filling. Fortunately, she saw the funny side so I only had to spend one night on the sofa (actually, that’s the only part of this tale that is not true).
Now everyone has their favourites when it comes to sandwiches and those favourites often hark back to childhood. So, I will leave you with some of my favourites from my earliest days of sandwich making (I was still relatively sparing with the number of ingredients back then). Three of them are classics, one of them is my very own invention. Try one next time you are feeling peckish and the Scooby snack jar is empty.
SWEET AND SOUR SANDWICH
My gift to the culinary world, although apart from immediate family, you, dear reader, are the first to know about it. Marmalade provides the sweet and Marmite provides the sour. Spread one of these delights on each slice of bread and slap them together. Believe me, it works (well, it works for me). I have no idea if Marmite is sold outside the UK (Australia has a similar thing, Vegemite). Marmite is a thick black, salty tasting, savoury spread made from yeast extract – a by-product of the beer brewing industry. I’m not selling it that well, am I? But in the UK, people love Marmite. Or they hate it. There’s no middle ground.
CHEESE AND JAM (JELLY)
Some people nod knowingly when you mention this classic, others look at you as if you are a swivel-eyed loony. Why? It’s not that far removed from fruit and cream. Cheddar, a proper Red Leicester (not orange rubber) or a creamy white cheese like Wensleydale or Cheshire together with marmalade or apricot jam are my favourite combinations.
FISH FINGER SANDWICH
The ultimate kiddies’ sandwich. At least in the 1970s it was. And for me it had to have a good layer of Heinz Salad Cream on, rather than the ubiquitous tomato ketchup. Again, I think salad cream may be a British peculiarity even though Heinz is a US company. It’s a sort of a poor man’s mayonnaise with a more vinaigry taste and that’s what people had on their salad (and fish finger sandwiches) back in the seventies. Now we are all more sophisticated, salad cream sales have plummeted and mayonnaise rules. Except in Birmingham.
As an aside, someone I know used to love fish fingers when he was little but hated fish. When he found out fish fingers were made from fish(?!!?), he stopped eating them. (I concealed your identity there, little brother. Oops.)
THE CHRISTMAS SANDWICH
The ultimate sandwich and part of my Christmas Day ritual since I can’t remember. As a kid, I may even have looked forward to the Christmas Sandwich as much as the traditional Christmas turkey dinner (which I love). This was because, when it came to making the Christmas Sandwich, there was no grown up around trying to force feed me Brussel sprouts. I would sneak into the kitchen some time after the end of The Great Escape and before waking up the adults in time for the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show. There I would cram a two slices of bread full of turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce. Fabulous. Only 32 sleeps to the next one!
By the way, does anyone remember a BBC sitcom called Colin’s Sandwich(!!)? My reputation obviously came to the attention of Auntie Beeb. It was broadcast between 1988 and 1990 and starred the late Mel Smith. Probably not the BBC’s finest hour.
* That’s “BirmingGum“, England not “Birming [pause] Ham” in the sweet home state of Alabama, USA.
The Scene: St. Pharts Home for Old Aviators somewhere in Middle England. Squadron Leader James “Biggles” Bigglesworth (retired) tiptoes discretely into the common room to be greeted by his old pal and fellow resident, Ginger Hebblethwaite.
Ginger: I say Biggles where have you been all afternoon?
Biggles: Shh! Been To Bedfordshire. Might be knocking on a bit Ginger but not lost the spirit of adventure! Sneaked out when Matron wasn’t looking. Ginger (puzzled): Wooden stairs to Bedfordshire? Bit sleepy, eh? Not surprised after that double helping of spotted dick for lunch.
Biggles: No, no. Bedfordshire. The fine county of. Went to a little town called Biggleswade. Ginger: By jove Biggles, old boy – they’ve named a town after you? How spiffing!
Biggles: Seems so, Ginger. Mind you, I have to say it’s quite an unremarkable place – I don’t think anything of note has happened there since the 22nd of July 1661.
Ginger: And what was that?
Biggles: That old cove Samuel Pepys stopped in the town to buy a pair of warm woollen stockings!
Ginger: Ha ha – I’ll wager the good burghers of Biggleswade couldn’t contain their excitement. But my dear old thing, how on earth did you know that?
Biggles: This is the modern world Ginger – read it on the interweb. That encyclopedia thing.
Ginger: Wiki …. wotsit, er, Wikileaks?
Biggles: Well yes, it does as it happens. One of the joys of growing old but stop changing the subject.
Ginger (puzzled again): So all that’s really happened in Biggleswade in the last three hundred and fifty years is that some fellow who kept a diary bought a pair of woollen stockings there? In July. Strange. Global warmage must be worse than I thought – wouldn’t need woollies in July nowadays. (Long pause)
Biggles: Ooh, there was something else – the Shuttleworth Collection.
Ginger: A shuttleworth collection, how splendid! I used to love a game of the old shuttleworth. Any racquet sport and I was your man.
Biggles: Ginger, old chap – “Shuttleworth” not shuttlecock. Fabulous place, old grass airstrip and sheds full of old planes and cars. All our era, Ginger, and earlier. An old Blériot monoplane, would you believe – the oldest kite in the world still flying. Lots of planes from the first dust up with Jerry – they’ve even got a Sopwith Camel, and a Sopwith Pup and a Triplane! And stuff from the second show too, like Hurricanes and a Lizzie. Remember the time we flew Lysanders into France right under Jerry’s nose?
Ginger: I’ll say! What a close scrape that was. But …. you say they’ve got a Sopwith Camel?? Well, cover me in tinsel and call me Christmas, the old Camel, eh? Now that was a tiptop old crate, wasn’t it Biggles?
Biggles: Certainly was, old boy. Wouldn’t old Algernon have loved to see that?
Ginger: Ah yes. Dear old Algy. Always regretted that last adventure in Canada. Bit past it, weren’t we?
Biggles: Possibly. Poor old Algy (sigh) …….. (he continues sadly) Algy met a bear.
Ginger : The bear met Algy.
Biggles: The bear had a bulge.
Ginger: The bulge was Algy.
(Pause while they reflect on their dear old chum, Algernon Montgomery Lacey). Eventually:
Biggles: He never was the same after he pancaked in that Spit and cracked his head on his joystick.
Ginger: He thought the bear was his old nanny.
Biggles: Monstrous hairy old beast.
Ginger: The bear was quite frightening too………….
Biggles: Anyway, fancy a game of croquet before tea?
Ginger: Why not? You lead the way, old thing.
Biggles: Righty-ho. Chocks away!
Exit. Not pursued by a bear.
The above may need some explanation for some! Biggles is a fictional character – an English pilot and adventurer created by author Captain W.E. Johns for young readers. Biggles, along with his pals Ginger and Algy, was the subject of about 90 books written by Johns between 1932 and 1968. Biggles never seemed to grow old as he fought in World War I, World War II and then had a career as a flying detective in the post-war years! He must have eaten a lot of turmeric but strangely, Johns never mentioned this in the books.
The Shuttleworth Collection is very real and, as Biggles says, it’s a fabulous place. Based at the Old Warden aerodrome just outside Biggleswade, the collection comprises about 60 old aircraft, 40 or so cars (many seriously old), motorcycles and agricultural machinery. There is also an ornamental garden – the Swiss Garden – and a grand old house. Most of the exhibits work as they are supposed to – flying or driving or tractoring or thrashing or whatever. Special events like airshows are frequent. I have been several times over the years including a memorable visit for a twilight airshow. This was held in the evening when the air was at its stillest so they were able to fly (or attempt to fly) the oldest and most frail exhibits – including the old Blériot, just like the one in which Monsieur Blériot made the first flight across the English Channel in 1909. On a warm summer’s evening with everyone sitting around on picnic rugs and Daisy the cow interrupting proceedings occasionally by wandering onto the grass airstrip, it was wonderfully atmospheric.
Samuel Pepys (pronounced “peeps”) is also real and is famous for the diary in which he recorded his daily activities between 1660 and 1669. The diary is an important historical record of life in England during that period – for example, it includes an eyewitness account of the Great Plague of London and the Great Fire of London and also an insight into where the best stockings could be purchased in the 1660s.
I delivered a van to Biggleswade on Monday which prompted this post but, unfortunately, I had no time to visit the Shuttleworth Collection nor did I buy any stockings (funny that). I’m afraid I have to report that the town is as unexciting as Biggles suggests.