Camping Inspiration: Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Wheels, wings, engines, rails… let’s face it, machines are ace, aren’t they? We visit three museums dedicated to our favourite types of travel and see what they’ve got to offer for campers.
Words and pictures: Hans Seebeerg
Whether it’s nurture or nature, man-brains are somehow wired to be fascinated with anything that travels in the air, on rail or on tarmac. The process starts in the first year of life as the primitive male pushes toy cars around a carpet, and continues all the way through life as he eventually spends hours in the pub, “entertaining” anyone who’ll listen about the technical specifications of countless lumps of engine-propelled metal.
So strap in as we visit the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, the National Railway Museum in York and the British Motor Museum in Gaydon for a proper boys’ adventure…
IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM
“Are the Spitfires on our team?” This is how the eight-year-old brain inside the head of my eldest son Oscar reacts to being face-to-face with World War II’s most famous and heroic machine. We’re in one of the halls at Duxford’s Imperial War Museum, just south of Cambridge, and Oscar is eagerly getting to grips with the finer points of the 20th Century’s largest conflict. “Yes, they were on our team,” I confirm. Next to the Spitfire is a Messerschmitt, which Oscar turns and eyes suspiciously. “I don’t like this one,” he says curtly, eyes narrowing. “Did that belong to the baddies?”
Maybe it’s because we know how World War II played out, but there is something rather friendly and heroic about the look of the Spitfire, while the Messerschmitt really does have a sinister, Dick Dastardly air about it. I read Oscar the information about the German plane, and it says that this example actually flew in the Battle of Britain.
It’s incredible to think of what this machine has seen, but it’s just one of many incredibly atmospheric examples of aviation history on display at Duxford. Trying to explain to Oscar that these planes helped to shape our lives and maintain our freedom might be a slightly intangible concept for someone of his tender years, so we just stare: there is something really stirring and moving about seeing these planes up close. It doesn’t always have to be Armistice Day for you to stop and silently remember.
When we first turned up to Duxford we headed straight for the American Aviation Building, because Oscar was absolutely obsessed with seeing a Lockheed Blackbird in the flesh. For those who are unfamiliar with this machine, it was an American spy plane that carried out secret missions above the old Soviet Union and China; it cost 34 million dollars a pop, went at over 2,000mph and flew at an altitude of more than 80,000ft – that’s four times faster and twice as high as a commercial plane. Its ability to soar at three times the speed of sound means it could have done Cambridge to Edinburgh in 10 minutes.
Anyway, all this is neither here nor there for Morten, because this plane has quite literally struck the fear of God into him. In fact, they are all freaking him out big time. I reckon a lot of this is down to size: when you walk into the American hall you’re confronted with the brilliantly-titled B52 Stratofortress – and believe me, there is nothing that makes a three-year-old soil a pair of fresh pants quicker than this long-range, jet-powered bomber. It’s so huge that you have to continually adjust your eyes to comprehend the wingspan. It’s actually wider than it is long – wingtip to wingtip measures an astonishing 184ft. Just one look at this thing and Morten is clinging to me and I can feel his little body shaking at the very sight of it as his arms wrap tightly around my neck.
Making a hasty exit to avoid a total meltdown, we saunter along the edge of the runway, watching the take-off of an old Tiger Moth offering passenger rides, when we soon come to a small, military jeep with its boot open and what appears to be all manner of electronic contraptions inside. The kids duly spot thousands of buttons that can be pressed from a mile off, and leg it over to investigate.
It turns out that it’s a little display of army radios, manned by a former soldier, and reveals one of the best things about Duxford: there are loads of volunteers on hand to tell people cool stuff about planes and army stuff. In this instance, as the kids clamber into the boot to twiddle nobs and turn dials, I get chatting to this ex-soldier who served in the Falklands. I start with a question that sums up the kid of fearless, unerring journalism for which I’m known:
“Er… so how do these things work then?”
“Basically, they send a signal up into the atmosphere, then back down to the receiver station,” says the chap. “A lot of them have a range of about 40 miles, although the smallest one has a range of about one-and-a-half miles – you’d use that if you were advancing cross-country.”
He points to a clunky looking one that’s about the size of two shoeboxes. “I got through to the Falklands with one of these from Dorset,” he says. “The signal was pretty good.” It takes me aback a little bit – it looks so primitive. He laughs.
“Well, they were introduced in 1976 and used up until 2006. We had them in the Falklands, both Gulf wars, plus Afghanistan when we first went there. They look primitive but that’s because they’re analogue. It’s all gone digital now.”
We soon learn that there’s other stuff that you’d have thought would have been shelved ages ago but wasn’t until recently – like Morse Code. Honestly, I thought the last time our military would have used that was about 70 years ago when some old Cholmondley-Warner-type chap would’ve been tapping through a message that read, ‘I say chaps, let’s advance on those damn Jerries!’ Not for the first time in my life, I’m well wide of the mark.
Speaking of incredible technology, there’s one plane tucked inside Duxford’s largest hangar that I haven’t mentioned yet, because I knew if I did Oscar and Morten would not have stopped banging on about it. They’ve both spent hours of their young lives swooshing a little toy around with its unmistakable nose and distinctive wings, so as we finish our drinks and snacks in the nice little café near the entrance I draw a breath and utter the sentence I know will send them completely crackers…
“Right, who wants to see a Concorde?”
I’ve barely finished the plane’s second syllable before a torrent of ‘Me me me!’ accompanies frenzied hand-raising and desperately arching backs, as if they’ve both just been jump-started with defibrillators running on Haribo. It strikes me that rather like the Spitfire, there’s something about the magic of Concorde that transcends generations; this plane had been retired before either of them were born, but somehow its supersonic legend lives on. Minutes later, as we stand beneath it, you can see why.
It brings a stunning end to a stunning day. Oscar and Morten have had a brilliant dose of planes, and once back in the car they clutch their Spitfires and Concordes and whizz them about all the way home.
Highfield Farm Touring Park
Long Road, Camberton, Cambridge, Cambs CB23 7DG
Just five miles from the centre of Cambridge makes this a great site for visiting the famous university city and of course, the war museum.
Cambridge Camping & Caravanning Club site
19 Cabbage Moor, Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire CB22 5NB
If you’re a member (and even if you’re not), you’ll know that C&CC sites offer consistently good facilities and this one is no exception.
NATIONAL RAILWAY MUSEUM
I’ve been to the National Railway Museum in York with the family before, so I have absolutely no qualms about declaring it the best value museum in the UK, bar none. I also know two handy titbits of advice from previous visits: there’s a car park right next to the museum, but you need to be an early bird to get a space in it. Get here at 9.30am at a weekend and you’ll be sorted – it’s only £5.50 for the whole day on Saturdays and Sundays, and then you can walk literally 30 seconds to the entrance and beat the queues.
Also, whereas many a museum will charge you anywhere between £10 and £25 to get in, the surprisingly pleasing thing about the NRM is that it continues to be free to get in. Mind you, don’t be a tightwad – in order to keep it going it’s the moral thing to do to at least stick a fiver into one of the donation boxes when you saunter in.
We seem to have timed our visit right in more ways than one as we’re waiting for the doors to open at 10am, because the expectant buzz of people waiting and the massive signs saying ‘Flying Scotsman’ lead my Poirot-like mind to deduce that we might well be in the presence of the world’s most famous steam train. Oscar, the proud owner of at least three Flying Scotsman models and a big fan of the era when all transport was powered by steam, is feverishly buzzing with excitement and as the doors open, we have little choice but to run after him to the main hall where this proud example of British engineering is being displayed.
The Flying Scotsman is magical up close – it’s symbolic of an era when Britain was brilliant at making stuff and it sort of makes you want to burst into a rousing chorus of God Save The Queen. There’s a bit of a treat in store as we walk past, because a queue is forming which lets you go into the cockpit to see its nobs and levers up close. The knowledgeable chap inside tells us of the Scotsman’s ability to house eight tons of coal; Oscar can’t quite compute this in his head so I get the iPhone out and calculate that this is approximately the weight of eight Fiat 500s. The man also says that on the train’s daily run from Edinburgh to London – a route that started in 1862 and still departs at 10am every day even now – the Flying Scotsman would get through 13,000 gallons of water, or 59,000 litres if you’re a fan of metrics. Either way, that’s enough liquid for about 312,000 cups of tea.
Flying Scotsman might only be an occasional visitor to the NRM, but there are trains that are here every time and never fail to thrill the trainspotter crowd. One such machine is The Mallard, which always seems to play second fiddle to the Flying Scotsman but has an impressive history of its own. This beast marked the zenith of coal and water-powered rail travel by setting a steam locomotive record of 126mph back in 1938 – a record that still stands to this day.
Fans of newer, more exotic trains are also catered for at the NRM, and one of the other examples guaranteed to get people having a good old nose around it being the Bullet Train – the only bullet train outside of Japan in the world. Now obviously if you mention these to people they seem to immediately think that they go about 4,000mph, but this one – dating back to 1976 – only had a comparatively pedestrian top speed of 130mph. That’s only 4mph faster than The Mallard, for crying out loud, although these days the new bullet trains (called ‘Nozomi’) break 180mph.
Even so, the sight of that old 70s ‘Shinkansen’ in full flight must have been pretty impressive, given its huge size. Mind you it looks like a Hornby number compared to the gargantuan train nearby known simply as ‘The Chinese Engine’. Measuring over 15 feet tall, it’s hard to explain just how massive this thing is. I ask Oscar to stand next to one of its wheels for scale and he’s only just over half its height. Apparently it was built in 1935 but taken out of service in 1981 – presumably because the BFG wasn’t available to drive it anymore.
Sticking with the general theme of massiveness, another thing that will have your senses struggling to comprehend the sheer vastness of scale is the cutaway section of the Channel Tunnel, showing how tall and wide the actual tunnel is. Living in an age where we send probes on missions to Pluto five billion miles away and use mobile phones that pack more computing power than the Apollo 13 mission, it’s easy to get blasé about the Channel Tunnel. It’s just a long hole underground, innit? Well yes – but seeing this up close gives you a brain-frying insight into just what an immense achievement it was.
Think about it: a 24-mile tunnel, 50 metres under the English Channel, made using 11 tunnel-boring machines that weighed 1100 tonnes each, courtesy of a five-year period of hard graft by 13,000 people. Like all good museums, its displays like this that really make you stop, think and marvel at the incredible things human beings can achieve when we put our minds to it. Like I said, the National Railway Museum really is the best-value museum in Britain. If you haven’t been, get it done.
Ashfield Holiday Cottage Touring and Caravan Park
Hagg Lane, Dunnington, York, North Yorkshire YO19 5PE
Ideal for your York minibreak, you’ll also be well placed for adventures across Yorkshire and when you’re relaxing on site, you’ll love being so close to nature.
Townends, Aysgarth, Leyburn DL8 3AQ
This is a really small site for Camping & Caravanning Club members who like to be away from the crowds and are happy being self-sufficient.
THE BRITISH MOTOR MUSEUM
Now if any of your family members are car nuts, this is the place to bring them. It’s £17 for adults, £9 for 5-16-year-olds and free for little ’uns, but for that you get to see over 300 cars (and a caravan) that not only tell the story of the British motoring industry but also take you to Hollywood.
Let’s cut to the chase: the movie cars are the highlight for the boys – especially Oscar, who’s familiar with some of the films they’re from. Lady Penelope’s limo from the Thunderbirds movie is a crazy slab of bubblegum pink metal, with a throne-like interior trimmed with wood, leather, sheepskin and chrome. Then there’s Lara Croft’s Land Rover Defender, which took 500 hours of modifications to transform it into the insane vehicle that starred in the 2001 Tomb Raider movie, as well as the Defender used in James Bond’s Skyfall – it even has the dents, dings and knackered windscreen from the car chase it featured in.
But my highlight, which Oscar simply shrugs at, is the DeLorean DMC-12 – better known as that car from Back to the Future that travels back in time thanks to its flux capacitor. The museum does a very good job of arming you with repeatable information, and I’m reminded of the crazy story behind Delorean, involving a £100 million loan from the British government, criminal convictions and – somewhat inevitably – receivership.
Much of the museum focuses on the British car industry and its heady peaks and woeful troughs, and this is probably the part that is better aimed at adults of a certain age who will remember marques like Morgan or the introduction of the first-generation Mini. That said, this is far from a geeky snoozefest for car anoraks, because the British Motor Museum is chock full of enough interactivity to keep kids amused.
The modern child loves a touchscreen, and there are loads of things to click and swipe (even if they might not be able to fully understand what they’re doing). Crucially, the museum has also factored in a vital part of a child’s enjoyment of the whole place: they’re allowed to sit in some of the cars. It is, I should point out, also quite amusing for adults to see the look on their kids’ faces when they get in an old car and ask, “Where’s the satnav?” I try to explain to Oscar and Morten that my first car was a Metro in which the musical entertainment was supplied by a tape player, and that the satnav came in the form of an AA road map. They look puzzled. Then Oscar asks the question I was expecting.
“What’s a tape player?”
Looking around, that is the great thing about the British Motor Museum, and actually the theme that ties all three of our Planes, Trains and Automobiles museums together: it’s the mixture of the past and present side by side that allows you to have a real sense of perspective of the impressive march of technology in air, rail and road travel.
The boys have seen the Spitfire and Concorde – planes that saved a nation and then allowed it to travel faster than the speed of sound. They’ve seen the Flying Scotsman and the bullet train – machines that pioneered steam and speed. And for context, they’ve seen an Austin Metro and Minis that weren’t built by BMW. It’s been a cracking adventure.
Anita’s Touring Caravan Park
The Yews, Mollington, Oxfordshire OX17 1AZ
This site is popular with glampers and has spotless facilities. You’ll easily be able to get into Banbury too should you fancy heading out for dinner.
Fir Tree Falconry
Warmington, Banbury, Oxfordshire OX17 1JL
An exciting site if you love birds and it’s actually a falconry centre. The campsite is set within a valley and perfect for nature lovers.