diamond geezer

 Sunday, March 02, 2008

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 21: RAF Museum

Location: Grahame Park Way, Colindale, London NW9 5LL [map]
Open: 10am - 6pm
Admission: free
5-word summary: those magnificent men's flying machines
Website: http://www.rafmuseum.org/london
Time to set aside: at least half a day

It's cub scout heaven. A handful of giant hangars in North London, hemmed in beside the M1, packed with instruments of aerial death. Look, an aeroplane, and look, another aeroplane, and look, several more aeroplanes. Just like it was back in the 1970s when I first visited with my cub scout pack, only now quite a bit bigger. So yesterday I went back for another look, this time woggle-free.

Milestones of FlightThere's the main visitor entrance, over there near the car park beneath the swirly yellow sculpty thing. Don't worry, it's free to enter, so you can walk straight past the disinterested door staff without coughing up. Take the underwhelming back stairs up to the first floor and enter the terribly modern Milestones of Flight hangar. That's a Blériot, and that's a Gipsy Moth, and that's a Fokker, innit? There are rather more planes in here than you'd find stacked up over Heathrow at the start of the Easter holidays, and these are rather more famous too. Just don't step over the protective string for a closer look or one of the guides will bark at you. Along one wall is an extremely detailed Timeline of Flight listing aviation accomplishments every year from 1903 to 2002, which would take at least an hour to read properly. This is good stuff, this. But don't get any ideas about going upstairs to enjoy the state-of-the-art 3D cinema or Air Traffic Control exhibition - they'll probably be "out of bounds" due to lack of staff.

On through the canvas tunnel into the main body of the museum. Oh look, yet another hangar filled with planes, this time even more cavernous. And rather darker (plane spotters be warned, not a great place for taking photographs). This is Bomber Hall, home to Buccaneers and Lancasters and scores of other aircraft used for airborne massacre. It therefore seems more than a little inappropriate to spot a bloke eating his sandwiches beneath the delta wing of a Vulcan nuclear bomber, or a mum changing her son's nappy sprawled out beside the remains of a crashed Halifax.

RAF wingsGuess what's in the hangar nextdoor? Yes, lots more planes (and a few helicopters thrown in for good measure). There'll also be also an awful lot of cub-scout-aged boys, caught up in the excitement of aeronautical nirvana, dragging their weary parents around from Kittyhawk to Lockheed. If there's a technologically inspired pre-teen in your family, bring them along to Hendon and they're sure to have a whale of a time plane-spotting. There's even a special section of the museum - Aeronauts - packed with child-friendly interactive experiments. From the whoops of delight I heard coming from this area yesterday afternoon, obviously nobody realised they were swotting up on their Science curriculum.

And there's more, even more, in two further giant hangars outside. The Grahame-White building - Britain's first purpose-built aircraft factory - contains all the old biplanes from the Red Baron era. It's only open in the morning, so if you arrive early make sure you go there first. And across the car park is the Battle of Britain collection. Make sure you enter by the left-hand door, else you'll end up in the restaurant. And don't be tricked by the initial exhibits into thinking that this is going to be a really naff collection of stilted waxworks. Oh no, it's another collection of planes, this time all WW2-related. Spitfires and Hurricanes stand wing to tail with Messerschmitts and Heinkels, again in a rather gloomy lens-unfriendly environment. And every hour, on the hour, the lights are dimmed completely to permit the projection of the "Our Finest Hour" audiovisual presentation. I didn't wait, and the comatose attendant looked like she'd been unbothered by queues for many a month.

This is an old-school museum, plane and simple. Informative displays tell you all you need to know, without too much additional flashiness. It feels a little under-staffed, which may be why all the upper floors were roped off yesterday. But there's tons here, quite literally, in one of London's more under-appreciated visitor attractions. Mind out of the way - cub scout pack coming through!
by tube: Colindale  by bus: 303

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