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.
It was off to North Norfolk last weekend for two nights in a quaint old cottage in the quiet little village of Docking. However, our first port of call was Sandringham, the Queen’s country house and estate. When we arrived, it was raining so we did something very British. All five of us (wife, daughter, son, son’s girlfriend and me) sat in the car to eat our picnic. While munching our sausage rolls, cold pizza, chicken and pasta salad, my daughter let on to the others that Dad (on my last return from Le Mans), had bought a cup of tea in one service station then driven to another service station to drink it. For some reason, everyone thought this was hysterically funny. I think we were overcome by cabin fever. Tip: if you buy a cup of tea at Thurrock Services on the M25 and find it has been superheated to 200°C, then drive to South Mimms and drink it; by that time the tea will be a drinkable (assuming you are driving anti-clockwise round the M25 otherwise it will be stone cold). This saves time and is much safer than drinking scalding tea whilst driving.
By the time the hilarity had died down and we had finished scattering cold food over ourselves and the car’s interior, the rain had stopped. So, we did another very British thing and headed straight to the Sandringham estate café for ….. a cup of tea (I suggested buying the tea there and driving to nearby Castle Rising to drink it but was out-voted).
Eventually, we handed over some hard-earned and entered the gardens, museum and house – seventeen years on from our last visit of which our kids have no memory as they were only about 2 and 4 years old at the time. The gardens are immaculately kept (as you would expect) with well trimmed expanses of grass, many beautiful trees and the odd statue and lake here and there. If you don’t fancy parting with any cash, then 240 hectares of the Queen’s private estate have been designated a Country Park and you are free to explore its nature trails, woodland paths, sculpture trail, adventure playground (remember to take an adult with you) and visitor centre with its shop, restaurant/café and all-important toilets. There are also campsites on the estate should you have a tent, caravan or yurt to hand.
The house itself was built in 1870 by the then Prince and Princess of Wales, (later Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) as their country retreat. We have visited many stately homes and, to be honest, the interiors get to look a bit samey (impressive but samey). Sandringham is a bit different because it is still a real home for the Royal Family and this is obvious from the pictures and photos dotted around the place. The knowledgeable and friendly staff in each room also promote this feeling with little insights into Royal life at Sandringham. For example, showing us where the Christmas tree is placed every year and where the family gather to open presents. Like other stately homes, it is grand but not excessively ornate or opulent and even has a certain informal feel to it.
The tour of the house only affords access to the ground floor and the main living, reception and dining rooms. A tour of upstairs and the bedrooms would be too intimate – after all, no-one wants to see Royal underwear scattered on the floor and dirty coffee cups lying around.
After the house, we went to the museum in the old coach house and stable block which over the years have also been used as a police post, fire brigade station, carving school(?! that’s explained in the museum) and Royal garages. On show are various gifts given to the Royal Family over the years from around the world but the larger part of the museum is given over to a collection of Royal cars, including some interesting child-sized ones! One of these is a miniature replica of the James Bond DB5 built by Aston Martin engineers in about 1965 for the young Prince Andrew. It sports concealed dummy machine guns, a bulletproof shield which could rise out of the boot, electrically operated water jets in the rear light reflectors, a smoke discharger and more!
There were too many cars too feature here but here is a selection….
Three long days working this week and a chance to get re-acquainted with Transit vans (its been a while since I drove the larger ones):-
Monday: Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI (125hp) DSG (auto), Kettering, Northants to Dereham, Norfolk
Wednesday: Ford Transit 350 (the big one!), Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire to Woodford Green, Essex
Friday: Ford Transit Custom (the “traditional” size Transit), Rotherham, South Yorkshire to Southampton
There was a comment in response to last week’s diary asking if I was going to review the BMW X5 40e plug-in hybrid (two of which I drove that week). It is, after all, an interesting car so here goes ….. well, from what I could tell, it was very nice! It pulled away satisfyingly on electric power only and stayed on electric until I had to accelerate up to 65/70mph on the motorway or dual carriageway (on each leg of my round trip that was only a few hundred yards from my starting point!). Everything I said about driving the Mercedes C-class plug-in hybrid on electric power applies here – eerie, silent, satisfying and, for me, still a fascinating novelty. When accelerating up to motorway speed, the two litre, turbocharged four cylinder petrol engine cut in without any fuss, the car felt quick (I have included some anorak data at the bottom of this post) and the eight speed automatic box was as smooth as frog’s fur. When cruising at motorway speed, the petrol engine was virtually silent, possibly because it was only ticking over at about 1500 to 1700 rpm so I assume the electric motor was helping. You do notice road noise but may be because the power unit is so quiet! Negotiating curves (a total of two roundabouts), the X5 felt as if it was quite nimble, certainly far more so than the lumbering Range Rover that I drove the following day. Inside, there was an upmarket and quality interior that you would expect from a £60k BMW and you would not be disappointed in terms of comfort. And that’s about it! Other than to say that the gentleman to whom I delivered the X5 loan car (I took his week-old X5 hybrid back to Leicester to have a small paint chip sorted) confirmed what I said about upmarket hybrids and tax in my Mercedes C-class post. His new hybrid X5 uses more fuel than his old diesel X5 – so it won’t save the planet – but it will save him over £400 per month in tax!
Sorry I can’t say much more about the X5 but I only drove each example about 35 short miles between Leicester to Kettering, almost entirely on motorway and dual carriageway. The only time I turned the steering wheel was when negotiating those two roundabouts (OK, I had to park them as well). Had the journey been any shorter I could probably have left the cars plugged in! Now my childish imagination starts to run riot. Suppose the X5 had one of those self-retracting cables like an old vacuum cleaner (and could reach from BMW Leicester to Kettering)! When I got to Kettering I could have rung up the BMW dealer, asked them to unplug the cable and give it a little tug (reminding them to let go sharpish). The plug and cable would then have raced off down the street like a demented snake (hopefully without BMW salesperson in tow) snapping at the heels of startled pedestrians who would leap out of the way with a shriek. Cars would have screeched to a halt at green lights as the snake hurtled through on red. Then it would have flown down the M1 and A14 passing all the other traffic and just a few seconds later it would have raced towards the X5 and disappeared into a recess in the bodywork. Before disappearing, the last couple of feet of cable would have flicked furiously up and down like the tongue of the aforementioned demented snake, just as if the car were vigorously sucking in the tail end of a strand of spaghetti. While standing nonchalantly checking the latest cricket scores on my phone, I would have casually closed a flap over the recess, wiped off any excess bolognese sauce and carried on with whatever. This is, of course, all fantasy but there are electric vehicles on our roads that do have cables long enough for their entire journey – they are called trams. Shame we abandoned them in the UK for decades before re-discovering the benefits. The new tram system in Nottingham, for example, is rather good. If you ever go to Nottingham, give them a try. You may have the privilege of travelling on the likes of Robin Hood, Torvill and Dean or England cricketer, Stuart Broad. (Sorry – I know I have some readers in Australia so mentioning Stuart Broad may be insensitive after what he did in the fourth test of the last Ashes series.)
If you are not convinced about trams, you need to visit the National Tramway Museum (https://www.tramway.co.uk/) in Crich, Derbyshire – it’s brilliant. If you are visiting Matlock or the south eastern side of the Peak District National park, you will not be far away. Please be assured I am not a tram spotter nor tram aficionado but my family and I have visited this place two or three times over the years and really enjoyed it. The museum is set in a period village where original buildings have been transported and re-built brick by brick, including an old pub. You can ride trams up and down a length of track (all day if you want – there’s no extra cost), peruse the splendid indoor exhibits, lose the kids in the outdoor or indoor play areas, try to lose them again in the woodland walk and sculpture trail and then eat and drink yourself silly. Here you are spoilt for choice – the period tea rooms, the pub, ice cream parlour or traditional sweet shop (or all of them if your diet is starting the next day). Or, you can take your own pork pie or corned beef sandwiches and enjoy the picnic area with views over the Amber Valley at the far end of the tram line.
We first went to the museum many years ago when our kids were very little. It was near Christmas and we had a hearty roast turkey lunch served in giant Yorkshire puddings. Then we met Santa riding on the tram but I must have been naughty because I don’t remember getting a present (the kids did though). The last time we went was four years ago and it was a 1940’s theme day. What a great atmosphere! Loads of people dressed up in period civvies or military uniforms. And you have to admit, the trams themselves – many of them brightly coloured and/or with acres of highly polished wood – do look rather magnificent.
ANORAK’S CORNER: BMW X5 xDrive40e M Sport – 0-60mph, 6.8 seconds; top speed, 130mph (limited to 75mph on electric only); total power (combined petrol engine & electric motor), 313hp; combined MPG, 83.1 (ha ha); range on electric-only, 19 miles.
The first part of the week was spent on a break with my brother’s family in the Lake District so work this week was limited to:-
Thursday: Mercedes A200d, Leicester to Enderby, Leics and Mercedes E220d Estate Auto, Leicester to Nottingham
Friday: Nissan Juke, Leicester to Bognor Regis, West Sussex
The trip to the Lakes entailed some interesting driving in my own time. The journey up there was quite dramatic as we negotiated the A66 from Scotch Corner to Penrith in snow. The outside lane was covered and we slowed right down, plodding along through a blizzard. I have crossed the country on the A66 a few times in the past year and it is dramatic whatever the weather. A great scenic route – if you have the opportunity, try it.
The next day there was a complete change in the weather, brilliant sunshine and almost mild. The wind was a little fierce at times and one of my young nephews thought it smelt of chicken!?? We had a great drive from Keswick to Buttermere via Newlands, Birkrigg and Keskadale then back over the Honister Pass. Narrow lanes, hairpin bends, steep inclines and stunning scenery. Fabulous. In between, we had a wonderful walk around Buttermere, a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. Then there were welcome hot drinks in one of the cafes that the village of Buttermere has to offer. The drinks included hot Butterbeers for my nephews!
On our return from the Lakes, we stopped at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden – a National Trust property and UNESCO World Heritage Site near Ripon in North Yorkshire. I am amazed that this place is not more well-known in the UK. The ruins of Fountains Abbey are huge, the remains of a vast complex built up by Cistercian monks over a period of 400 years until the abbey was closed down by Henry VIII in 1539. The abbey is set in a picturesque valley with the River Skell flowing around and under the buildings. There is also the Elizabethan/Jacobean Fountains Hall, a mill and other estate buildings to explore.
The small green valley, like a broad fairway on a golf course, leads away from the abbey. On one side of the valley is the River Skell set against a backdrop of trees; on the other, a cliff of yellow rock eventually gives way to woodland. About half a mile down the valley you come to Studley Royal Water Garden. This testament to wealth and flamboyance was created in the 18th century by a former politician, John Aislabie, who also purchased the abbey ruins to incorporate into his estate. The water garden comprises ornamental canals, ponds, lawns, follies, statues, tunnels and a lake. Beyond the lake is a large deer park. Although on a grand scale, the simple lines of the water garden make it a restful place which can be enjoyed close up or from a path on a ridge overlooking the valley. At one point on this elevated path is “Surprise View” which affords a spectacular vista back up the valley to the abbey ruins in the distance.
This is a stunning place for a day out and I cannot recommend it highly enough. There are good walks to be had and a modern National Trust visitor centre with the usual shop and restaurant (great Red Thai Squash soup!).