Imperial War Museum Duxford

American Air MuseumThe Idea of a day trip to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford was floating amongst us for a while but there was always some problem. Either one of us had to work at the weekend, or someone was on holiday, or someone else had a hangover. However, a few weeks ago, we finally managed to set a firm date for our Stanfords trip to the IWM.

We decided to take a train to Whittlesford Parkway station which is located less than two miles from the museum, and walk from there. Otherwise there is a bus route from Cambridge serving the museums on Sunday. If you drive, Duxford is located just beside junction 10 on the M11.

What struck me first was the size of the museum. There is number of hangars, some of them quite enormous, located next to grass and hard runways. It was all bigger and more than I expected.

We started our tour from the largest hangar of the complex, the AirSpace. It displays mostly British and Commonwealth-built aircraft and its absolute highlight is of course Concorde. It was one of the first to be built and it was used for the test flights. In fact it has the distinction of having flown the fastest of any Concorde during the flight trials in which it was involved. What’s most amazing is how low-tech everything looks, especially the cockpit, and how tiny the windows are. Still it is a spectacular machine, the only supersonic passenger jet ever.Concorde

Other great machines in this section include such icons as the Spitfire, Hurricane or Harrier as well as lesser known but impressive beasts like an Avro Vulcan strategic bomber (a huge delta-shaped plane which was used to carry the UK’s atomic warheads), an Avro Lancaster heavy bomber from WWII and a Short Sunderland flying boat (used for hunting U-boats). There are many more smaller or less known aircraft in this huge space, we could probably spend a few hours in this one hangar alone but we decided to move on as there was so much more to see.

For our next stop we chose the American Air Museum which has the largest collection of US historic military aircraft in Europe. This collection is displayed in a striking modern building designed by Foster and Partners and opened in 1997. It has a clean design comprising a concrete domed roof and a huge 90 meters wide glass front. While a spectacular building in its own right the displayed aircraft somehow overshadow it completely. The big open exhibition floor (measuring about 6000 sq. meters) is dominated by the B-52D Stratofortress with its 56 meters wingspan and 8 engines. Other classics include planes from the WWII like B-17 Flying Fortress, B-29 Superfortress (similar to the ones which dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and B-24 Liberator as well as more recent machines.

One of them is my absolute favourite in the whole museum, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the highest flying and fastest manned jet aeroplane ever built. It is black, it looks mean and it could fly over 3500 kph. I was fascinated by this iconic futuristic machine ever since I first read about it a long time ago when I was still in high school. Ironically, I didn’t even know there was one on display in Duxford. Once I saw it my jaw literally dropped. Even if you are not particularly interested in planes it really looks stunning, better than any art installation if you ask me.SR-71 Blackbird

Just to make my day even better there was another plane which I used to read a lot about, the tank-busting, ground attack, A-10 Thunderbolt II. It is a weird looking but vicious machine armed with one of the most powerful guns ever mounted on a plane. With seven barrels it can shot 35 rounds per second and its bullets are depleted uranium armour-piercing ammunition. You really wouldn’t like to stay in its way, unless of course in Duxford, taking photos. Oh, and the pilot sits in a “bathtub” of titanium armour.A-10 Thunderbolt II

Other aircraft in the AAM you might have heard about is the Lockheed U-2 spy plane, P-51 Mustang or F-4 Phantom. There is also a piece of Saddam’s 350mm “Supergun”.

But Duxford is not only about the planes. The Land Warfare section houses an extensive collection of tanks , military vehicles and artillery. Among its highlights I have to list the Russian built T-34 (often described as the most effective, efficient, and influential design of World War II) IS-2 “Joseph Stalin”, a heavy tank used by the Red Army during the Battle of Berlin, and the German built Sd Kfz 173 Jagdpanther (Tank Destroyer), one of the heaviest and best tanks of WWII.

Apart from those classics there are also plenty of interesting quirky vehicles such as a command tank used by Bernard Montgomery where the front gun was replaced by a wooden dummy to create more space for the communication equipment, Monty’s bedroom caravan which was captured from an Italian general in Northern Africa or the “map caravan” which was used by Monty during the decisive push by the Allies from June 1944 until May 1945.

The list could go on and on but I’ll try to contain myself and stop listing everything.

From the Land Warfare building we headed back towards the aircraft part of the museum. There, close to the runway, are located three of the original hangars used during the Battle of Britain. In fact they were built all the way back at the end of WWI. These quite impressive structures, built with brick but with interesting wooden lattice roof girders and huge wooden concertina doors, are in remarkably good condition considering their age.

One of them is home to the Battle of Britain exhibition which explains this pivotal moment in Britain’s history as well as considering air defence of the UK during the First World War and Cold War. The main exhibits there are the legendary Supermarine Spitfire as well as the bit forgotten, but arguably more important, Hawker Hurricane (accounting for 60% of the RAF’s air victories in the battle).

F-15 during conservationAnother of the historic hangars is home to the Conservation in Action, a place where staff and volunteers preserve and restore the varied exhibits, from WWI planes to modern jet fighters, everything happening just in front of the visitors. In fact during our visit there was a F-15 Eagle parked inside waiting for a fresh coat of paint.

Behind the old hangars is located one more spot that you shouldn’t miss during your visit, the 1940 Operations Room. It has earth mounds built around on all sides, to limit the blast damage, but it actually looks very flimsy. The original fixtures were gone long ago so what you see nowadays is a very accurate reconstruction based on documents, photographs, film and personal recollections. Even if just a reconstruction it still offers a great insight into how the air battles were commanded and fought, with a big map-table, telephone exchange, various radios etc. Again, it all looks so low-tech, especially when compared with modern aviation.Operaitions Room

When we left the Operations Room we realized that museum was about to close in 15-20 minutes. Somehow we had spent almost 7 hours constantly touring the exhibits. We even completely forgot about lunch (quite a feat for three large lads like us). Suddenly we could feel all the distance we walked during the day, it must have been miles and miles.

Including the journey to museum and then back to London it was a long day trip but a very satisfying one. It really helped that one of my colleagues is actually a pilot himself and he really knows the planes. He could tell some interesting story about almost every exhibit. But even if you don’t have an expert like that at hand you will still have loads of fun as long as you are even mildly interested in aviation or the military. I guarantee you. Spitfire

What connects motorway M25 and general James Wolfe

Rural KentAnother day off, another motorway walk. But this time I was dragging my girlfriend with me so I had to add something extra to my, normally, ultra-geeky motorway explorations. After spending some time over an OS Explorer map (number 147 to be precise), I finally had a clear plan of action.


We started our trip in Dunton Green station conveniently located less than a mile from the interesting junction 5 on M25 (the one where M25 is joined by M26 and A21). From the station we followed London Road and Sundridge Road, and after just a few minutes we were standing on an impressive overpass carrying local Chevening Road right over the junction. It was a perfect spot for good road photography (which I can then share on some websites even more geeky than me).M25-M26 junction

After taking a few dozens (or actually rather more) photos we were ready to move on to the second point of our adventure, the town of Westerham. Why there? During my studies of the OS map I spotted the National Trust property, called Quebec House, located in that town. After a few more minutes of online searches I knew that I want to visit it as I am really interested in historical connections between Britain and North America.

From the junction we followed some quiet, some busy country lanes west towards Westerham. We were never far from M25 (and its noise) but we still managed to get slightly lost. We were taking shortcut across some fields (trying to avoid particularly busy local road) following, what suppose to be, a public path, when we realized that hedges completely surround the field. Not wanting to backtrack we used an umbrella and a piece of stick to ram through the smallest hole in the hedge we could find. Once on another, much more quiet, lane we headed south crossing M25 (again) and joined A25 in the village of Brasted.Meters from M25

I always find it surprising how rural the countryside feels in such close proximity of London. We were no more than few hundred yards from London Orbital, one of the busiest roads in Europe, but the landscape was green and pleasant with lots of beautiful historic houses. No industrial estate or modern boring tract housing in sight. One could easily see that it is an affluent part of the country.

However it was not all perfect. It would be great stroll from Brasted to Westerham if not for the busy A25. It really didn’t encouraged casual strolling so we covered the distance rather quickly.

Which is good, because Westerham happen to be a surprisingly nice town.

Quebec HouseOur first point of call was, of course, Quebec House, the birthplace of General James Wolfe, victor of the Battle of Quebec in 1759. The brick home is located on, what is now known as, Quebec Square, on the east side of town in residential neighbourhood, and is surrounded by historic homes. The house’s coach-house contains an exhibition on the battle and on Wolfe’s life. The house itself contains memorabilia on Wolfe’s birth at the house on 2 January 1727, his life and death. I really enjoyed the place. The displays were quite interesting and included copies of old maps and drawings of the epic Battle of Quebec as well as examples of military equipment from those times. It is especially fascinating place to visit for someone like me, who is seriously interested in North American history. At the end, person born in this house changed history of a half of the continent. Places like that always appeal to me. I find it fascinating to be able to walk in into important historic person’s bedroom or office. Not many places like that survived in Poland where I’m from (for obvious reasons).Westerham

The town itself has a quiet genteel feel. In its centre there is a triangular village green and adjoining Market Square. Which is not actually a square at all as it is a rather wide high street used historically for markets. Henry III granted Westerham a market charter, making then the village a major player in the buying and selling of cattle in Kent, a tradition that survived to 1961 when the last cattle market was held. There are quite a few pubs, restaurants and shops, all rather well appointed, as well as statue of General Wolfe (unveiled in 1911), surrounding the green. It all feels light years away from London.

General Wolfe PubHowever, the best pub in town is located on its outskirts, on the opposite end of town to the Quebec house. To get there you simply have to follow A25, lined here by even more old houses, until you almost leave Westerham. The pub is called (how else) The General Wolfe and among the others they have General Wolfe Ale on tap. It is a 16th century grade II listed pub and was once the ‘tap’ to the original Black Eagle Brewery, part of its old wall can be seen in the beer garden. The timber framed building was clad in weatherboard in the 19th century and masks the rustic cottage which climbs to the rear. It was definitely one of the best pubs I have seen for quite a while. It was quiet in the mid-week afternoon and the staff and locals were friendly. In its historic interior you could easily imagine Wolfe himself or some of his soldiers downing a pint or two before leaving for Canada. It doesn’t look like it changed much since then.

The pub was the furthest point of our walk. From there we backtracked along the the A25 all the way to the outskirts of the Sevenoaks, passing the villages of Brasted and Sundridge on our way. It was getting late so we decided not to go all the way to Sevenoaks station but from the junction of A25 with A24 we followed a footpath around the Chipstead Lake then across lovely meadows back towards the Dunton Green station. To finish our day on a good note we stopped in the Rose and Crown pub for a good pie and a pint or two before catching train back to London.

Overall it was a great day out. It might be not the best walking trip as at times we had to follow some busy roads, but it offered a good mix of geeky road stuff as well as a good deal of interesting history with an American connection.

What else one might need?Around Sevenoaks

Romans and Ruins

Lake District PeakCouple of years ago with my cousin we decided to visit Lake District and Hadrian’s Wall. Visiting the district was my cousin’s dream for many years while I was always fascinated by the wall. So it all looked like a great trip coming.

Our adventure couldn’t start better. We drove from London and arrived to Windermere in the late afternoon. From there we drove A595 over the spectacular Kirkstone Pass (at 454 m above the sea level the highest pass in the district open to vehicular traffic) then along equally scenic Ullswater before stopping for a night in Penrith. It was a glorious day and we were looking forward to the next day.

Well, it couldn’t start worse. It was raining, it was windy and it was foggy. Classic Lake District weather. Still, we didn’t give up and bravely drove into the hills hoping for the best. We were touring narrow lanes of the district with heating in our car running high trying to convince us that it is actually warm. Obviously it didn’t work as any time we left the car for even the briefest moment the wind hit us with a full force of hurricane, chilling us to the bone. Damn, it was just mid September, I don’t even want to know how it is there in January.

Finally we arrived at Honister Pass. Road B5289 leading there was as scenic as A595 the previous day but we couldn’t really appreciate the views as visibility was poor (actually, non-existent would be a much better description than just poor). At the top we stopped for a tea in a vane hope of trying to wait out the rain. It didn’t work and after an hour or so we decided to drive down and head to Carlisle when we had rooms booked for the night.

When I woke up the next morning I could hear both, wind and rain, bashing my room’s windows. So, here we go again. But still, we didn’t give up and headed to the hills as bravely as the previous day. This time we decided to go to the coast first and by the time we arrived to Whitehaven the sun was out and our holiday started looking like, well, a holiday.

From the coast we went to Wast Water, all the way to the road’s end where one of the trails leading to Scafell Pike begins. We were even a bit tempted to try and climb it but weather was too unpredictable for that. So instead we decided to drive yet another spectacular road and cross the Hardknott Pass. This was by far the most fun to drive from them all. The road zigzagged crazily but still managed to achieve an incredible gradient of 1 in 3 (about 33%) which means that it vies with Rosedale Chimney Bank in North Yorkshire for the title of steepest road in England.Hardknott Pass

One of the main reasons for venturing this way (apart from the fun of driving of course) was visiting the Hardknott Roman Fort which is located west of the pass in a totally, absolutely middle of nowhere. Even if weather was far from perfect (as the sunshine was long gone and chilly wind was trying to kill us again) I absolutely loved the place. The bad weather actually make the experience better as it really helped imaging the hard life of Roman legionaries. Some of them most likely walked all the way from the warm coast of Adriatic to be posted on this dark and cold frontier of the empire. To create some degree of comfort for themselves the Romans even built the baths. Still it had to be hard life here. The layout of the fort is well visible as are remains of the foundations of many of its buildings (including the baths which were located outside the main fort).Hardknott Roman Fort

From Hardknott we drove across yet another pass (the Wrynose Pass this time) and headed back to Carlisle which has become our base for exploring the region.

The few days we spent in the Lake District looked quite the same; a constant battle with crazy weather,(except for some flashes of glorious sunshine) and lots of scenic driving. Finally, on the last day, we decided to head east of Carlisle and see the famous Hadrian’s Wall.

It is one of the attractions which (unlike the Hardknott Fort) probably everyone knows about. I don’t even remember when I heard about it for the first time. Probably when I was attending my primary school, well over 20 years ago and 2000km away in a Polish mining town. Such is its fame. So we were full of anticipation and didn’t let the absolutely horrible weather to scare us off. We followed the A69 (which is dead straight for quite a long stretches and reminded me American roads more than the British ones) to local B6318, before finally arriving to Waltown Quarry, which we chose as a staring point for a short walk along the wall.Hadrians Wall

I know that a lot what is visible today is actually a 19th century restorations but it doesn’t change the fact that it is a spectacular site indeed. And still, plenty of original bits survived as well. As with Hardknott Fort I found it fascinating being able to follow the footsteps of Roman soldiers and imagine their life back then. We followed the wall for a bit, reaching some spectacular sections located probably about a mile east of the quarry where we started. We could (and wanted) to go further but by then the weather got really nasty, with driving horizontal rain making a splendid job in trying to send us back to where we came from. I really felt sorry for the Roman legionaries who were stationed here, some of them for many years and thousands of kilometres from home.

In general we really enjoyed our few days in the Lake District and surrounding region. Sure, the weather was far from perfect, but what else one should expect out there? If we wanted a glorious sunshine we would have gone to Spain. But we prefer rugged, dark and mysterious landscapes of the north than boring touristy costas of Spain. Sure, a little bit less of the rain would help but one shouldn’t moan too much. And the Roman sites must be absolutely fascinating for a anyone with even minimal interest in history.

In short it was a great trip which I would gladly repeat, I would especially like to come back to visit some other sections of the wall. And I’m sure I will.