diamond geezer

 Monday, May 23, 2016

Beyond London (12): Hertsmere (part 2)

Somewhere historic: de Havilland Aircraft Museum
Britain's oldest aircraft museum is to be found in fields close to Junction 24 of the M25, just south of London Colney. The location is important. If you're not driving it's best to take the bus, specifically the 84 from Potters Bar or St Albans, and get the driver to drop you off at a godforsaken stop beneath the motorway embankment. From here it's a short walk down the drive of Salisbury Hall, a moated medieval manor last substantially upgraded in 1690, to which Charles II was a regular visitor (and Nell Gwynne lived in a cottage by the bridge). In the 1930s its owner was Sir Nigel Gresley, the esteemed steam loco engineer and designer of Mallard (which it's said got its name from the ducks in the moat). And in 1939 the Hall was requisitioned for a top secret wartime project, the creation of an ergonomic high speed bomber, hidden away inside a hangar disguised as a barn.

That aeroplane was the de Havilland Mosquito, one of the most successful Allied planes, fast and high-flying and thus hard for the enemy to shoot down. Although unarmed it could deliver a substantial payload, and its aerodynamic shape made it ideal for long-range reconnaissance. Crucially it was made mostly of wood, which was both light and very easy to come by, unlike the aluminium required for more traditional bombers. Development took a couple of years, building on Geoffrey de Havilland's considerable experience in the aeronautics industry just up the road in Hatfield, and mass production began in 1941. All sorts of industrial premises could be used to make and assemble the necessary parts, and the ubiquity of production eventually led to over 8000 Mosquitos being built.

The first prototype Mosquito has pride of place at the de Havilland Aircraft Museum, a cluster of hangars and sheds round the back of Salisbury Hall. There are only two hangars at present, but the foundations of a third are laid, which'll help get some of the larger aircraft out of the elements and under cover, thereby preserving their life. Some are shorn of tail and wings, else they'd be too unwieldy to keep, but all are from the de Havilland lineage, which has a mighty impressive pedigree. That means a Tiger Moth, a couple of proper Mosquitos and a Horsa glider used to land troops behind enemy lines. Moving into the jet age there are two Vampires and a Sea Vixen, and then my personal favourites, the passenger airliners.

The Comet was supposed to herald a golden age of jet travel, until two of the first planes fell out of the sky with metal fatigue prompting a major rethink. The museum has the full fuselage of a French Comet 1A, plus the cockpit of a Comet 4 you can climb up into and marvel at the array of knobs and dials and switches. I enjoyed clambering into a Heron, once used to fly to the Highlands and Islands and with almost no aisle whatsoever between its allegedly comfy seats. But most evocative of all was entering the first class section of a Trident, with 'Club' antimacassars draped over orange upholstery, and the original laminated safety cards poked in down the back, A nice touch is the selection of BEA flight goodies, from crockery and toiletries to a boxed Benson and Hedges cigarette, plus a (hell yes, I had one of those) Junior Jet Club log-book. If all this evoked a golden age of travel, one look at the screen-less flight deck soon tugged me back to reality.

As well as entertaining dozens of members of the public, young and old, the museum is clearly a place of pilgrimage for its many volunteers. They wander round in overalls giving the planes care and attention, and fix bits in a corner of the main hangar, as well as working on the restoration of a Dragon Rapide in a sealed workshop. If you have a penchant for aviation you could join them, or simply come for a look round (and inside) the collection. The museum's open five days a week, plus bank holidays, the shop is particularly well stocked, and entrance is a tenner.
by bus: 84, 84A

Somewhere pretty: Bushey Rose Garden
All rose gardens are bushy, but Bushey Rose Garden is one of a kind. It owes its existence to a Bavarian named Hubert Von Herkomer, whose lowly family migrated to England in 1857 when he was just eight years old. Initially they struggled, but Hubert developed a prodigious artistic talent which elevated him first to the Royal Academy and later to a knighthood. He moved to Bushey in 1873, later setting up an art school on the high street which grew to worldwide fame. He was also a big name in early motorsport and cinematography. No, I'd never heard of him either.

In 1894 Hubert and his wife moved into a turreted Romanesque mansion in Melbourne Road, named Lululaund after his second wife, and with an interior as florid as its title. Then in 1912 his art school moved elsewhere, so he demolished it and invited one of the finest landscape gardeners of his day to create a Rose Garden. Thomas Mawson designed a splendid sunken garden with pergola, gabled summerhouse and four-way fountain, for which he was paid the princely sum of "one portrait". Regrettably Sir Hubert died before the garden's first summer, but his widow lived to see many more and loved the displays of roses that bloomed forth each year.

To wrap up the history bit, the house (now derelict) was offered to the council in 1938 but they couldn't afford the maintenance costs so it was almost entirely demolished. Instead they took over the rose garden, and the Royal British Legion built a clubhouse on the site of Lululaund, preserving only the porch. Under civic ownership the garden became neglected, and was repeatedly vandalised, before an injection of lottery cash helped bring about about a full restoration in 2010. More recently the clubhouse has been knocked down and replaced by eight luxury flats, with the developers making full marketing capital out of Herkomer's red sandstone porch tacked onto the front.

The restored rose garden is gorgeous, and not yet at its seasonal peak. A path winds in from a gate on the high street leading to a terrace around the sunken garden. Step down to inspect the tall dribbling fountain, or cross to enjoy the pergola draped with climbing rose and clematis. At the end is a seven foot classical bronze plaque from Lululaund, or rather a convincing copy because the original was nicked in 1967. If you're lucky the summer house should be open, inside which is a comprehensive history of the great man and his garden project, along with a visitors book and leaflets inviting you join the Friends. They run several events, including yoga on the back lawn when the weather's decent. Even Gardeners' Question Time were here last month, and highly appreciative.

And despite the beauty, and copious benches throughout, I had the entire Rose Garden to myself. Presumably the people of Bushey have better things to do on a Saturday afternoon than enjoy their finest civic space, like dashing round Spar for provisions, or playing a round at the Country Club. To be fair the rest of Bushey's quite nice, or rather "stylish and affluent with an exclusive ‘village’ atmosphere" as the marketing collateral has it. Three separate clusters of cottages along the ridgetop high street give the place some pre-Georgian heritage, and even the suburban sprawl down the hillside comes with sweeping views.

For more on the area's history, be sure to drop into Bushey Museum (round the corner, beside the fire station). This hits well above its weight, both in terms of size and thanks to its formidable army of volunteers. Downstairs are the local heritage galleries, including that portrait of Herkomer, a tube map with Bushey Heath marked on it, and a VHS of Wham's greatest hits performed by Bushey Meads School's most famous pupils. Upstairs is the art, in more galleries than you'd expect, but then the museum does have a renowned and extensive collection. As well as the Herkomer-specific room, and another for his art schoolmistress, I particularly enjoyed the temporary exhibition of locally sourced book illustrations (and less so the overdose of cutesy animal pictures nextdoor). Expect to have a fistful of leaflets thrust into your hand before you leave, but seriously, Bushey puts several London borough museums to shame.
by train: Bushey   by bus: 142, 258

So far: Dartford, Sevenoaks, Tandridge, Reigate & Banstead, Epsom & Ewell, Mole Valley, Elmbridge, Spelthorne, Slough, South Bucks, Three Rivers, Hertsmere

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