OK, so of course I diverted off my London Loop walk to visit Bentley Priory. But it took a while to get there. At one point the path passes the front of the estate, with the mansion part-resplendent through a screen of trees. But to gain access to the former RAF station requires a mile-long diversion around the perimeter because there's only one entrance and it's completely round the other side. Life's easier if you arrive by bus, with the 142 dropping off at the top of the hill (ten minutes out from Stanmore station) or of course you could drive. But whichever way you get here you'll have to pass security, because the building that helped win freedom in the skies during World War Two now lies within a housing estate for the incredibly rich.
The original Bentley Priory was medieval, replaced in 1775 by this grand house higher up the hill. It was designed by the great Sir John Soane, who also oversaw more lavish later refurbishment on behalf of the Marquis of Abercorn. Located in rural surroundings several miles from what was then London, the house attracted many famous visitors including prime ministers, Sir Walter Scott and Lady Hamilton. Its most famous resident was Queen Adelaide, widow of King William IV, who lived only on the ground floor and essentially came here to die. After a spell as a girls' boarding school Bentley Priory came to the attention of the RAF who used it for training purposes, until in 1936 the reorganisation of Britain's air defences brought about its finest hour.
RAF Fighter Command was established with the intention of preparing successful strategies for modern aerial combat. It drew on the the input of the Royal Observer Corps, also based here at Bentley Priory, and on newfangled radar, then in its infancy. Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding established a groundbreaking system combining observation and communication, setting up a central Filter Room at Bentley Priory and a control network to disseminate decisions to airbases across the country. When the Battle of Britain began (75 years ago today!) Dowding's system came into its own, while Germany had nothing close, and the intelligence differential was crucial to ensuring that the Luftwaffe were ultimately defeated. And all this from a hilltop above Stanmore.
I wasn't expecting to be stopped at the top of Mansion House Drive, I thought the security notice applied only to cars. But no, the security lady popped out to check I was heading down to the museum, and not a random miscreant here to intrude on the lives of Barratts' wealthy homeowners. They're massive homes down the main drive, and each sealed further behind an electronic gate suggesting high levels of privacy paranoia. Further into the estate the buildings are less beautiful, though I suspect not much less expensive, resembling pristine brick prison blocks with double garages attached. Signs warn mere visitors that certain paths are for Residents only, so best continue down the intermittent pavement and past a Spitfire to the Priory itself.
The main entrance hall below the clocktower is beautiful, enhanced by various stained glass windows to commemorate the building's wartime heritage. The most recent of these is the Dowding System Tactical Control Window, unveiled in the last month, and featuring an rarely-seen combination of radar masts, protractor and triangulation. Look up too to enjoy the lofty decorated ceilings, and don't head off in the wrong direction else you'll end up in one of the privately rented corridors, and that would never do. This is also why you'll be asked to wear a sticker during your visit, not just to show you've paid but to make clear that you're an official non-resident.
There are eight rooms to see in this two-year-oldmuseum, the first being the Abercorn Room which tells the story of the site. The desks of typewriters are expertly presented, and the interactive mirror is ingenious, but information is relatively thin on the ground. The audio-visual nextdoor is excellent however, as what appears to be a small room with a screen illuminates to reveal a key wartime hub, as Sir Hugh Dowding's role in leading Fighter Command is rightly celebrated. Out in the main corridor the Inner Hall boasts a gorgeous sweeping staircase (for residents only, and you're not, remember?), and beyond is Queen Adelaide's sitting room where she might have received her niece Queen Victoria on a visit to the country.
Bentley Priory's most impressive public room is The Rotunda, a circular space topped by a high dome, around whose walls are information, medals and memorabilia relating to The Few. This is the room with the most to see, and read, adding a roundly human dimension to your visit. Through the Music Room Corridor, where a tiny fraction of John Soane's original work remains, is a timber reconstruction of the original Filter Room complete with map table and figurines. And finally there's the Ballroom, which is ornate but echoingly empty, as if the trustees ran out of things to display. This used to be the main Operations Room until Ops were relocated to a bunker in the grounds - Churchill, Eisenhower and King George VI spent D-Day here - but alas the historic underground space no longer exists.
Which leaves the gardens, and these are magnificent. You'd expect no less because they're not for your benefit, they're for residents of the flats surrounding the limited museum space, because this is their gaff after all. Feel free to wander the borders and around the fountain, and to admire the mansion's grand facade, but please don't go beyond the official signs or cross the ha-ha into the rest of the grounds. Instead head for the cafe in the basement, it's daintily fitted out, and although the menu appears limited it serves a decent cup of tea and slice of cake. The Spitfire-branded parasols on the patio outside are a particularly thoughtful touch.
The museum's website recommends allowing 1.5-2.5 hours for your visit, although I'm not sure how you could ever extend your presence here to the latter, even if you eat your toasted roll really slowly. The museum's beautifully realised, and very welcoming, and unexpectedly evocative, but in reality no more than a handful of lightly-filled rooms surrounded by extortionately-priced apartments. Uxbridge has a better bunker, Hendon a better museum and Neatishead far more on radar. So you should come to Bentley Priory not because of what it is but because of what it was - one of the most important places in our island's history.