London: The RAF Museum

There’s a reason I haven’t been to the RAF Museum before now, and it is this: London is a bloody big place, especially when you’re using public transport, and Colindale is absolutely nowhere near where I live.  In fact, it took so long to get there, I was tempted to write “London(ish)” in the post title, but that isn’t strictly fair, because Colindale is as much a part of Greater London as Wimbledon is (even if it did have me wondering if it would actually be faster to get to the RAF Museum’s Cosford location than their “London” one). As usual, my main motivation for finally taking the plunge was food-related. Namely, bagels.  Bagels are one of my favourite foods, and it is nigh-on impossible to get a decent one in London (I absolutely hate cream cheese, so I tend to either eat bagels plain, or with peanut butter or marmalade, but most bagels here are treated solely as vehicles for fatty toppings, and aren’t actually tasty enough to eat by themselves).  I’ve tried all the Brick Lane “beigel” places, and found them seriously lacking (and when a chunk of whatever one of the employees was gnawing on flew out of her mouth and into my bag one time, that was it for me. I’m gagging a little just thinking about it), and some place in Camden run by an American that was supposed to offer “authentic New York bagels” was even worse – they were soft and flabby. I’d been hearing good things about Carmelli’s for years, but Golders Green is a hell of a long way to travel just for bagels.  But if I combined that trip with a visit to the RAF Museum, which is only a couple stops farther up the Northern Line, I could just about justify it.

  

But more on the bagels later, let’s talk museum!  The RAF Museum was a short hike from Colindale station (fine on the way there, a bit too long on the way back when I was tired from walking around hangars all afternoon), and pretty much looked like a big construction site, because that’s what it is right now.  Two of the halls (Battle of Britain and Sunderland Halls) are currently closed for renovation (so I’ll probably have to do a redux at some point), but that’s OK because there were still five halls left to see, even though we had to walk past quite a lot of construction to get to them.  The museum is free, though they charge a fee to sit inside a couple of the cooler planes, or to go on the Red Arrows 4D “experience.” A sign outside had recommended that we start with the WWI Hall, but since we weren’t too sure where it was at that point, we just headed straight into the main building, which meant we inadvertently saved the best for last (we asked the guy at the admissions desk who halfheartedly tried to sell us a guidebook where to start, and he vaguely waved his hand in the direction of the hangar entrance, and didn’t mention anything about the WWI Hall, so we initially thought maybe that was closed for construction too. I got the impression that the staff weren’t tremendously enthusiastic about the museum).

  

I’ve been to a fair few aviation museums before, most memorably on this blog, the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, where I got to go on FDR’s presidential plane, and Wings in Balcombe, where my ass touched the same place as Damian Lewis’s (it’s kind of a long story, if you haven’t read it yet).  The RAF Museum, at least the main building, was more old-fashioned and in need of updating than even Wings.  The aircraft didn’t appear to be arranged in any particular order as far as I could tell.  There was a neat shark-style WWII plane (the Curtiss Kittyhawk III) right when we walked in, next to the old gondola from “His Majesty’s Airship R33” (circa 1919…I don’t think the king ever flew in it, it was just named after him in the way that ships are, since it was considered a ship of the air. It did carry a band at one point though, to promote the sale of Victory Bonds, but people on the ground wouldn’t have been able to see or hear them, so pretty pointless really).  It just seemed like aircraft from the first half (or so) of the 20th century were scattered all over the hangar, with no real rhyme or reason to them.

  

Even worse was the signage.  I know I’m usually an advocate for old-fashioned signs, but these were particularly terrible examples.  The labels on the actual planes weren’t so bad, but there was additional signage about various RAF engagements on the walls, and this was just appalling –  boring, overly wordy, and neglected (there were whole sections of the text completely missing where it had given up the ghost and just peeled off the walls.  At one point, there was a section on nuclear power, and I was quite surprised to see it, because the signs genuinely looked like they pre-dated the nuclear age).  I can certainly see why they’re re-doing some of the other hangars, and I hope this one is next, because it sure needs it!

  

Actually, they do appear to be in the process of renovation, because there were sections closed off where they were removing the carpet in an attempt to make the hangars look more like hangars, apparently (though the carpet is the least of their problems). The singularly uninviting looking cafe in the middle of one of the halls certainly wasn’t helping with that authentic “hangar” atmosphere either.  After the hall of miscellaneous aircraft (in which there were admittedly some cool things, like a flying boat that had actually been turned into a houseboat at some point, before being restored), there was a room of helicopters, which was still remarkably unengaging, but at least there was a theme.

  

The hall of mainly WWII aircraft was better, in fact, it was the best part of the main building. There was a large display about American pilots who came over to Britain during the war, both American units which were stationed here, and Americans who joined the RAF prior to America entering the war, which I found quite interesting, despite it suffering from many of the same problems as the text in the first hall.  My favourite plane here was undoubtedly the massive Lancaster Bomber…you’ll see why at the end of the post (hint: it has something to do with my absolutely juvenile sense of humour).

 

This section was also more engaging because there was actually a plane you could crawl into (you can go inside the Spitfire too, but only if you pay a tenner first.  I think I’ll stick to the free planes, thanks), and a couple other aircraft you could peer inside (including a Chinook you could walk through the back of).  I also thought the small display about ejector seats was reasonably diverting.

  

After passing through the lame gift shop (the only postcards they had were those “Events from the Day you were Born” ones that looked like they’d been sitting around for a good twenty years.  They were all yellowed, with curled edges), we left the building in search of the WWI Hall that appeared to be somewhere around the corner (judging by the map outside that said it was still open, since the staff certainly weren’t volunteering any information), but on the way, we encountered the “Milestones” building, so stopped inside.  This apparently contained “milestone” aircraft from the last century or so of aviation, though there was nothing by the Wright Brothers (a 1909 Bleriot was the earliest I saw), save for a yellow line on the wall to indicate the length of their test flight at Kitty Hawk.

  

Having not learned our lesson from the disappointing first building, we climbed up to the enticingly-named “Control Tower,” only to be met with an empty room (that admittedly had good views of the hangar, but I was hoping for something more…interactive), but on the way up, we encountered a wall of “Flying Aces,” so I’m presenting to you the best moustache of the lot, so you can save yourself the bother of climbing all the way up there too.  For all that this were meant to be about “milestones” of aviation, and the hall clearly having been updated more recently than the main building, this was still not particularly impressive, and the displays concluded with a weird section sponsored by Oman about the relationship between it and the RAF, which read more like a tourist advertisement for Oman than anything else (didn’t convince me to go there though).

 

The final hangar currently open to the public is the WWI Hall, located, appropriately enough, inside the UK’s first aircraft factory building.  It has been very recently redone, thanks to a HLF grant, and it shows, because this was amazing compared to the rest of the museum. It actually still had the look of an historic building on the inside (my favourite part was the authentic “Thomas Crapper” pull chain toilets in the bathroom.  I love those.  It feels like you’re really accomplishing something when you pull the chain), but managed to incorporate modern, interactive, and entertaining elements.

  

The hall contained a number of really old planes, with display cases in the middle that explained more about the RFC and RNAS (the precursors to the RAF) uniforms, as well as other elements of early military aviation. The surprised fellow above is actually demonstrating a flight mask, as well as some early “electrically heated” clothing that apparently the pilots could only bear to turn on for a few minutes at a time, because the clothing got so hot, they risked burning themselves (it looks like that poor “surprised” pilot might have just burned himself in a delicate area)!

  

This hangar also had the interactive elements that were so sorely lacking in the other hangars.  In addition to a few activities including a game that involved matching up aerial photos of terrain with the actual terrain to see if anything had changed (surprisingly difficult), there was also a mock-up of a biplane, complete with gun and and communicating tube, so you could satisfy your inner Henry Jones Sr, only without blowing up your own tail fin (because there wasn’t one); and an old-school flight simulator that I quite happily flung myself around in for a while (it honestly felt like I was going to pitch myself out the side, because there was no seat belt or anything, but that was half the fun).

  

There was also that much needed personal touch in this hall.  Whereas the other hangars had just included long dull lists of the accomplishments of various well-decorated RAF pilots, this one actually had amusing anecdotes, like one from a pilot and his friend who flew over a beach and pelted German sunbathers with oranges, which was pretty hilarious (he said they laughed so hard, they almost fell out of the plane).  I love that kind of stuff.

 

If the WWI Hall is an example of where the RAF Museum is headed, then I definitely want to come back when they reopen the Battle of Britain and Sunderland Halls, and see what other delights they have in store (to be honest though, I was kind of relieved that not all the hangars were open when we visited, because we were there for ages, and I was exhausted by the time we left.  I didn’t want to see two additional ones!). I do hope they can afford to redo the main body of the museum too, because it is sorely in need of it!  Even with what’s there now, it is the kind of museum that takes hours to see, and might be better to make two trips if you’re very keen on historic aviation and don’t want to wear yourself out.  Because it is free, I can’t complain too much, but the difference in quality between old and new is too striking to ignore.  So, 4.5/5 for the new WWI Hall, but only 3/5 for the museum as a whole.  Oh, and about those bagels…Carmelli’s is where it’s at.  There were only a few flavours available (mainly just different types of seeds, which was OK, since I do really like seeded bagels, though I like blueberry ones even better), but they were fresh out of the oven, and pretty damn delicious.  I might have to make the trek out to Golders Green again sooner than expected, because now that I know I can get good bagels, I’m gonna want them all the time!

As promised, here’s that Lancaster Bomber. I think the big “Poos” speaks for itself, really.

 

 

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10 comments

  1. I started laughing as soon as I read “-and Wings in Balcombe” because I knew Damian Lewis wouldn’t be far behind. (That pun was unintentional.)
    I have to say, for all its mediocrity, the mannequin tableaus are pretty decent. I especially like the jaunty leg angle of the jeep’s driver.
    Thank you for that delightful moustache pic. It truly is a marvel, and it looks like it gave Pégoud much personal joy.
    I really love the look of that WWI Hall too – and, of course, the surprised flight-mask model. Also, I’m super envious that you got to try a pull-chain toilet. I’ve never come across one before, and my life is lacking because of it.
    Okay, I have to ask: does your loathing of cream cheese extend to cheesecake?

    1. Maybe unintentional, but a good pun nonetheless!
      The mannequins were really good. There were a couple excellent examples I left out because I didn’t have space, and I worry that I go on about mannequins too much since most people don’t share my enthusiasm, but yeah, they were one of the highlights for sure.
      There were Aces more handsome than Pegoud, but none of them could touch his moustache.
      This is far from the only pull-chain toilet I have experienced…they’re fairly common in old pubs, I guess for a touch of authenticity (or they can’t be bothered to replace them maybe, not sure how long a toilet lasts for)? My old local had them, so I got to enjoy them fairly frequently. Apparently the House of Lords has even older style toilets where you pull a chain up instead of down, but I haven’t gotten to use them myself! Maybe that should be a tourist slogan: “Come to London, we’ve got interesting Victorian toilets!”
      And yes, I’m afraid it does. My feelings of disgust towards cream cheese are so strong that I can’t even eat things that I know it’s in, even where I probably wouldn’t be able to tell it’s there. Like I won’t eat rugelach because 95% of recipes use it in the dough, and that’s a risk I’m not willing to take. I even smell cake frosting if it’s from an unknown source before I eat it, to make sure it’s not cream cheese frosting, and if I can’t tell, I scrape it off to be on the safe side. The same goes for mayonnaise. I have issues.

  2. Sounds like CEO Maggie Appleton (appointed 2014) has her work cut out for her. She is quoted as having this philosophy – ‘Museums are all about communication… they are about telling people stories; learning from the past to understand our present and inform our future.’This sounds like there will be great changes in the reinterpreted museum spaces that you spoke about. Gone are the days where the collection sells itself because people have too much to do with their spare time. If it wasn’t for the local bagels, you may not have gone there yourself!

    1. Thanks for the extra info! To be honest, I probably would have made it there eventually just because of this blog, but it would have taken even longer without the bagels (which aren’t even within a reasonable walking distance, you have to take the Tube). So I can see why most tourists probably don’t make it up there…although they try to sell it as a short hop from Central London on their website, it’s not really, and there’s no other museums near it, so it pretty much eats up your whole day if you visit. I would think the average tourist would probably prefer to stay near Bloomsbury or South Ken, where you can knock out three museums in a day easy if you’re going for quantity!

  3. Nice post, I visited last month and have to admit I found the signs and info very boring. For such a large museum, there needs to be more interactive elements. I visited the halls in the same order, but by the time I got to the WW1 Hall I don’t think I appreciated it enough, because I had lost interest! They do have lots of really nice aircraft though, they just need to be displayed better and it would make it a really great museum. The new halls do look promising though.

    1. Thanks! To be honest though, I think most aviation museums are kind of boring, even ones that have better displays than the RAF museum; due to their one-note subject matter, they seem to be aimed at enthusiasts, probably because they figure people wouldn’t come if they weren’t interested in aviation (whereas art and history museums attract more general audiences, because they’re the type of thing people feel like they should see, even if they’re not necessarily interested in it). Doesn’t stop me from trying to like them, but they’re never going to be my favourite type of museum! That’s probably why I enjoyed the WWI Hall so much; because the war is something I am genuinely interested in, it would have grabbed my attention even without the interactivity (though the interactive elements certainly didn’t hurt!).

  4. The Aviation museum at Duxford outside Cambridge is definitely worth a visit. One one side of the site is a hanger containing British military and civil aircraft (including a Concorde prototype), and on the other side is an exhibition of US Air Force planes (including a Blackbird spy plane). The site is also an airfield, so they have air displays there too.

    1. Thanks for the tip! I just went to Cambridge or the first time a few weeks ago, so probably won’t be heading up that way again any time soon (and unless there’s a train that goes there, it’ll be tricky for me to get there at all), but I’ll definitely keep it in mind for the future!

  5. an alternative way of getting there is to take a Thameslink train from Wimbledon to Mill Hill Broadway (and then a 303 bus to the museum) – which would give you something to look at on the way, e.g. at Blackfriars bridge you see St Pauls cathedral and so on

    1. That’s the train I take to work, but I normally change at Tulse Hill. You’d have to time it just right though, I think it only comes twice an hour! To be honest, I’m more concerned about returning for bagels in Golders Green than I am about going back to the RAF Museum.

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