In June, my mam came down to London to stay with me for a few days. I decided to take her to the RAF Museum at Hendon, north London, as she is very interested in World War II, in particular Bomber Command, and I had found out that the museum held a Lancaster in the collection, which I knew she would love to see.
I had never seen the museum advertised and only heard of its existence because I am trying to visit every London Underground station. I was attempting to tick off some stations on the Northern Line and saw a couple of posters around the Brent Cross area. I looked the museum up online, and what I learned convinced me that a trip would be a good idea.
***About the museum***
The RAF Museum actually occupies two sites: there is another at Cosford near Birmingham. The Hendon site was opened in 1972 by the Queen on the site of the London Aerodrome. It is home to over 100 aircraft from around the world, from the earliest flying machines to modern state-of-the-art jets. With films and interactive activities as well as standard displays, the museum aims to offer an exciting day out for all the family.
Oh, and entry is free – another reason to visit! A few activities cost money, and you have to pay to use the car park if you’ve chosen to drive rather than use public transport, but the museum does offer a very cheap day out.
The museum is open 10-6 every day with some closures and shortened opening hours during the Christmas period. Some exhibitions have slightly different opening hours: check the website for more details.
Colindale is the nearest London Underground station (about a 10 minute walk away). It is on the Edgware branch of the Northern Line, about 30 minutes north from Central London. When you come out of the station, you need to go left: the museum is clearly signposted and it is difficult to get lost (and trust me, coming from me, this means something!).
As my mam and I walked up Grahame Park Way we saw the museum on our right, clearly visible with the name emblazoned on a grey building. We entered the grounds and saw a series of buildings, or hangars, behind a car park. The entrance was across the car park, and it had started to rain quite heavily by this time so we hurried inside!
The entrance was large and airy with toilets next to the door and an enquiry desk, where my mam purchased a guidebook. This was also the place where you could purchase tickets for things like the 4D show. A free leaflet containing a map was provided. The museum has different themed sections which you walk around in order.
***Milestones of Flight**
This was the first section and comprised a large hangar inside which were hung numerous aircraft covering a period of around a hundred years. Now I am not particularly interested in aircraft, but I AM interested in history and I found this section fascinating. Among the exhibits was a lookout balloon used in World War One – I imagine this would have been very dangerous! There was also a Blériot XI, an early plane that was used by Louis Blériot in 1909 when he became the first person to fly across the English Channel. At the other end of the scale the Eurofighter Typhoon is displayed: this is the most modern aircraft the RAF possesses and can fly at twice the speed of sound.
Stairs up to the next level allowed you to see the aircraft that were hung further up. This area had walls with pictures of fighter pilots in the First World War that shot down a certain number of planes. Many of them died. Along the walkway were interactive screens offering more information on the exhibits. As you walk down the stairs you can see a huge timeline covering an entire wall of the hangar. This timeline is labelled with key events in the history of flying alongside important events in general history to put them in context. This is far too detailed to memorise and a bit overwhelming but it was fascinating to read.
This section was the reason I brought my mam to the museum, as it is home to the Lancaster, used during World War II in bombing raids over Germany. My mam knows a great deal about this aircraft, to the extent that when one flew over our house at the time of the Sunderland Airshow she recognised it from the sound of the engine! The Lancaster is certainly impressive and imposing, huge (it had a crew of seven), and I found it quite chilling to look at.
Also on display was a Halifax bomber recovered from a Norwegian lake, rusted and broken but still recognisable. Other bombers on display include a German Messerschmitt, and a Valiant from the Cold War era.
Bomber Hall is a kind of memorial to the casualties of Bomber Command. While I was there the wreath which would later be placed on the new Bomber Command memorial in London was on display. Because of the raids on Germany, many of which involved loss of civilian life, those who flew the bombers were essentially ignored after the end of World War II, even though they suffered the highest casualty rate of any of the services, and it is only now that they are getting the recognition they deserve.
***Battle of Britain Hall***
This section holds and commemorates aircraft that flew in the Battle of Britain in 1940. Spitfires and Hurricanes are among the aircraft on display, and there is also a sound and light show about the battle although we didn’t watch this. These planes are much smaller and lighter than the bombers, designed for in-air combat when speed and dexterity were of paramount importance.
There were also other hangars: Grahame-White Factory, which contains the museum’s oldest aircraft; Historic Hangars which were part of the original aerodrome and contain various exhibitions about the RAF; an Aeronauts Interactive Centre for children; and a Marine Craft exhibition. However, we didn’t have time to visit these as we had to get back to central London to go to the theatre.
***Food and Drink***
The museum has a restaurant and a café, as well as a picnic area to eat your own sandwiches: this came in handy for us as I had made us lunch to save money and we couldn’t have eaten it outside as it was pouring down! We didn’t visit the restaurant, but did have a cup of tea and a muffin in the café. It wasn’t the nicest café as it was actually inside the Bomber Hall surrounded by all the planes as well as screaming children, and there was a long queue: I felt sorry for the man serving, as he was there by himself and clearly rushed off his feet. I should point out that we were there during half term and perhaps the museum is quieter at other times.
Designated parking is available for disabled visitors, and manual wheelchairs are available for hire free of charge, though you need to pre-book. Aisles are wide for ease of wheelchair access – I witnessed this first-hand myself – and disabled toilets are available. Seating is available at regular intervals throughout the museum.
I was impressed with the museum: it was interesting, well laid-out and there was a great deal to see – too much, in fact, for us to see over the course of several hours! There are activities and interactive exhibits for children, and the children I saw during my visit seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Something to be aware of is that the museum is obviously owned and run by the RAF, and naturally enough emphasises the RAF’s contribution to the history and development of flight. Sometimes I felt that the technological advances were emphasised to the extent that they glossed over the harm and injury that military planes can cause. I felt this particularly in Bomber Hall: while I have immense respect and admiration for those who risked, and still risk, their lives to man them, they are essentially killing machines and I found it sobering to look at them. Some planes, such as the modern fighters, are used today around the world in military attacks and who knows how many deaths they have caused.
Having said that, I’m sure people can draw these conclusions for themselves and the museum is primarily a celebration of the technological development of flight. The history of flight is just over a century old, after all, and it is incredible how far we have come in such a short space of time. The museum does an excellent job of demonstrating this.
Address: Grahame Park Way, London, Greater London NW9 5LL
Opening Hours: 10am-6pm (shortened hours over the Christmas period)