I chose to open this post with the above picture because I think my ambivalent expression in it perfectly encapsulates my initial feelings about Beaulieu (I don’t really want to get into politics on here, but I feel like I can’t let an event this horrifying pass without comment, so I have to say that if I had to pick a facial expression to sum up my feelings on the results of the US election, it would be more like this, but maybe with even more grump. Feeling very angry today). I’m not interested in actual cars, or in paying an absolute buttload of money to see said cars, but I sure do like sitting in fake cars whilst pretending to drive them (it has to be pretend since I never learned how to drive a real car), and dressing up in old-timey outfits, and actual Disney World style pod rides! All of which are part of the Beaulieu experience.
“Alright Jessica, you don’t like cars, so what are you doing paying £19 [and that’s the cheaper advance online rate; it’s £24 at the door if you don’t book ahead] to see the National Motor Museum?” you may ask, and with good reason. Well, my parents visited me back in October and unfortunately, my father is the sort of person who doesn’t really like doing things, as far as I can tell. But he does like cars, so in a vain attempt to do something (anything!) with him that he might enjoy, we decided to take him to Beaulieu, since it was the biggest car-related site we could think of (plus they have other attractions too!). I’m still not sure if he actually enjoyed himself, but the rest of us tried to make the best of the day, given that we’d driven a good couple of hours to get there.
So, we began with the main attraction: the National Motor Museum. Well, it certainly has a lot of cars in it! Fortunately, the collection included quite a few early automobiles, which I could at least appreciate on a historical level, including two cars used in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (I actually find the movie kind of a disappointment, given that some of my favourite people (Roald Dahl and Dick Van Dyke) were involved with it, so it really should be better than it is, but nonetheless…); Truly Scrumptious’s car, and old Chitty himself (herself? Was Chitty assigned a gender?).
I also appreciated the street of yesteryear, half-assed though it was (you couldn’t actually go in any of the shops, being that the focus was all on the cars), and the many interactive displays (the talking crash test dummy scared me a little); even though learning more about how cars worked wasn’t really all that interesting to me, pressing buttons and turning dials is still kinda fun. But the best part of the Motor Museum, by far, was yet to come.
Yes, it was that aforementioned pod ride, simply called “Wheels.” It came as a complete surprise to me, to the extent that I wandered into a dark hallway marked “this way to Wheels,” just thinking it was some kind of exhibit, and was shocked when a man approached and directed me into a moving pod (I think Marcus and I were the only ones on the ride; no queues, brilliant!). Oh man, this ride was great too, rather reminiscent of the one at Jorvik Viking Centre (though minus the pooping Viking, more’s the pity), with really cheesy tableaux that clearly hadn’t been updated in decades (a Linley Sambourne cartoon provided the backdrop for one of the scenes, remember him?).
In fact, I liked it so much that I would have ridden it again had it not been for the fact that it spun around just slightly too much, and left me feeling a bit ill for an hour or so afterwards (nothing severe though, and I am extremely prone to motion sickness, so most people would probably be fine), so I wandered around and looked at some of the excellent mannequins in the museum instead.
After a quick break for lunch (after reading some of the Trip Advisor reviews of the cafe the night before, I decided to bring a peanut butter sandwich from home, which turned out to be wise, because the food in the cafe did indeed look and smell disgusting (normally when we’re out somewhere for the day, we just grab a baguette and hummus from the nearest supermarket if none of the local eateries look appealing, but Beaulieu is fairly isolated (in the New Forest, hello wild ponies!), so you’re kind of at the mercy of their catering facilities once you get inside)), we headed to “On Screen Cars,” a rather small tent shared with a children’s play area that was meant to hold famous cars used in TV and movies. There were only about eight cars in there, and most of them were from old British sitcoms that I didn’t watch or care about, but I did enjoy seeing Mr. Bean’s car and the car that the Anti-Pesto car in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was modeled on, because I adore Wallace and Gromit (not that ass-penguin from The Wrong Trousers though. He can rot in that zoo).
Beaulieu is also home to the “World of Top Gear.” I’m not a Top Gear fan, so this meant very little to me, but I’m sure some people would enjoy it. The object captions certainly tried very hard to be funny in that xenophobic Top Gear way, so there’s that.
But, as Beaulieu’s tagline goes, it is “much more than a motor museum,” so we hopped aboard the monorail to discover the rest of it (the monorail isn’t strictly necessary, as the abbey and stuff are close enough to easily walk to, but after spending all day going, “monorail, monorail” as a prelude to breaking into the monorail song from The Simpsons, there was no way I wasn’t riding the damn monorail), starting with a garden filled with pretty kick-ass topiaries (the ones shown above are part of the tea party from Alice in Wonderland. Ignore my weird face; I was squinting because of the sun and I don’t have another picture that shows the topiaries without me).
One of the outbuildings to the manor house contained the “Secret Army Exhibition.” Like many large estates during WWII, Beaulieu was partially taken over by the military, and was converted into a secret training school for Special Operations Executives. So there were a lot of cool Bond-esque props on display that were once given to spies, and some stuff about coding, including a tribute to a pretty awesome-sounding woman named Noor Inayat Khan, who was descended from Indian nobility. Despite her pacifist inclinations, she wanted to help the war effort, so she joined the WAAFs, trained as a wireless operator, and eventually became the first female radio operator dropped behind enemy lines. Sadly, she was captured by the Gestapo after being betrayed by a fellow agent, and taken to Dachau and executed after undergoing months of solitary confinement whilst chained. There is apparently a heritage trail of sites related to her life that people can follow; maps of the trail were provided in the exhibition.
And now, on a slightly cheerier note, on to the country house, known as “Palace House,” which was a fine example of its type. This is what made me feel slightly better about paying £19, because let’s face it, a National Trust property would have charged at least 11 or 12 quid for the house and gardens alone.
The house was fairly sizeable, even though I’m sure we weren’t allowed to see the whole thing, and the paintings and objects all had captions apparently fondly written by the 3rd Baron of Montagu, I guess to show us how intimately his family was connected to the house (he talked about people who died a few centuries ago as if he knew them) and what a neat guy he was (it actually did sort of work, because I felt a bit sad when I discovered that he died in 2015, and his son is the current Baron. I especially love the caption on that little velvet suit, which the 3rd Baron wore to George VI’s coronation. He mentions that the velvet bag contained sandwiches to sustain him through the long ceremony!). I guess I should have mentioned this earlier, but Edward, the 3rd Baron, is the whole reason that all the cars are here today: his father, John, was a keen early adopter of the motorcar (he used to take Edward VII for drives), so Edward (Montagu, just to clarify) started the museum in his father’s memory.
The house is decorated roughly as it would have been in the Victorian era, and although I was a bit worried about interacting with the costumed “servants” who were meant to tell us about life belowstairs, it turned out they didn’t even acknowledge our presence (I didn’t want a whole awkward conversation with someone in character, but a simple hello or even a nod would have been nice). It was a lovely home, with some taxidermy and secret stairs, as you’d want from an old manor house.
There was also some very good bird wallpaper, a detailed exhibit about two feisty sounding ladies (stepmother and stepdaughter) who lived in the house for practically the whole of the 20th century (they had long lives), a random collection of Soviet art, and some really excellent modern family portraits that cracked me right up. I wish I could afford to have my portrait painted in a similar fashion.
Finally, there’s Beaulieu Abbey, which was a thriving monastic community until Henry VIII came along and broke with Catholicism, and much of the old abbey was destroyed. But some of it is still there, along with some examples of cool sarcophagi that were made to hold people’s hearts. Apparently, wealthy medieval people would often have their hearts and bones removed from their bodies after they died, and have their flesh buried in one place, bones in another, and their hearts in some place that was especially meaningful to them. It was done mainly so more people would pray over them (because the congregation of each church they were buried in would then have an obligation to do so), but symbolically speaking, I think it’s kind of a nice idea to have your heart put someplace special, even though I feel sorry for the person who has to remove it. The double coffin was so husbands and wives could put their hearts together (aww, in a grisly way).
The upstairs hall had some modern tapestries showing medieval life at the abbey (the tapestries were made in the 1990s) that contained lots of adorable farm animals, so I was a fan. Wandering the grounds of the Abbey, I came across the 3rd Baron’s grave (which is how I learned he was dead; a bit of a shock after his chatty tone in all those captions in the house). More importantly though, I also came across the ice cream cottage, wherein a delightful man gave me an enormous scoop of mint chocolate ripple ice cream for only £2 (the main cafeteria may have been gross, but I have no complaints about the ice cream cottage, or the ice cream man’s scooping technique, which was excellent. As someone who worked at an ice cream shop for five years, I am definitely qualified to judge this).
I fear I’ve already run on for too long, and only the very dedicated will have made it this far, so time to sum up! Though I am indeed, very much not a car person, I can’t argue with an actual ride inside a museum (also the monorail passes right through the museum, so it’s really like it has two rides!), and the rest of the estate was pretty damn entertaining as well. Was it worth £19? Actually, maybe it was (though initially ambivalent, I guess I came around in the end!). We did spend practically the whole day there, and I had a surprising amount of fun. I mean, you can’t go wrong with dressing up and posing in an old-fashioned car. 4/5.