My sister is visiting from Canada, which is a great excuse for some days out. We have often driven past the museum at Biggin Hill Airport and we decided to visit. I’m not entirely sure if it was the best afternoon we spent together.
Driving into the museum car park was probably the best bit. You can see the old buildings, red-brick huts where it’s easy to imagine airmen living during the war, and a couple of fighter planes. Biggin Hill was one of the main RAF bases in the second world war and being so close to London it saw lots of action. We hoped the museum visit would include a chance to see inside the huts, to imagine the lives of the young airmen, to relive the tension of living in such a place. It did not.
The car park was full of vintage cars when we arrived. We decided we would have a proper look at them at the end, and hurried into the museum. There was a shop just inside the door, and a man selling tickets. It cost £6.50 each, which seemed a bit expensive, but the man offered to explain about the exhibits which added value.
The man told us that the average time a pilot spent at the base before he died was 11 days. Eleven days. I don’t know if that’s accurate, but it’s shocking. They were boys really young, some of them only 19 years old. They were given planes they didn’t know how to fly, and sent off to fight. Some of the deaths happened after the planes were upgraded to having retractable landing-gear, because the pilots would forget to lower it before landing. Some of the deaths were because the fuel tanks were under the seat of the pilot, and shrapnel, or pieces from a shattered propeller, would explode the fuel. The first exhibit was an engine, and we looked at the remains of the wooden propellers. Later, they used metal ones but although these were more durable they would also cause sparks and potentially explode the fuel tank. (If I was a pilot, I would be more worried about sitting above a potentially exploding fuel tank than the enemy trying to kill me.)
The museum is small. Basically just one large room. There are a couple of films playing—one film of elderly pilots talking about their days flying from Biggin Hill, and one a clip of actors showing how pilots spent their days while waiting for a raid. The first film was interesting, and we heard about the pubs the airmen visited, and how they coped with so many deaths (they didn’t think about it). The other film was less exciting: there was a countdown, showing how long to the next raid; the pilots played cards or read, or smoked while waiting. Then the bell would ring, they would leave everything, and run towards their planes, desperate to get them in the air before the enemy planes appeared and bombed them. A life full of boredom and extreme stress.
The walls of the museum were covered in memorabilia. Gas masks, and uniforms, and photographs. It all very felt very homely, very real. These were real people, working to win the war.
The main part of the museum is the memorial chapel. This was slightly interesting, but it was built after the war, and really was more a place for people to remember the dead than part of a museum tour. The young pilots never sat there, that wasn’t the place they prayed desperate prayers to God, it wasn’t the place they remembered their friends, the place they gave thanks for returning after a mission. It felt more like a school assembly hall.
The gardens (mentioned on the website) were small (and not worth mentioning on the website). The really interesting-looking red-brick buildings were not part of the museum. They were sealed off, not even available for a photograph. We left the museum to find the vintage cars had all driven away, which was bit of a shame.
Is the museum worth visiting? Yes. Is it worth £6.50? Not in my opinion.
We went home for tea, and as I watched one of my sons playing croquet in the garden with my sister, I was very thankful that we are not at war.
Thanks for reading. Hope you have a fun week.
Love, Anne x