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The Damp Squib Dilemma

Winston Churchill visits Biggin Hill on 7 July 1941 © Image form the Bob Ogley Collection

The Biggin Hill Memorial Museum tells the story of Britain’s most famous fighter station, in particular its role during the Second World War. It also provides a sustainable future for St. George’s RAF Chapel of Remembrance, built at Winston Churchill’s instigation shortly after the war. Churchill, champion of The Few called the Biggin Hill fighter crews our strongest link.


The Museum, which has opened on the edge of the old RAF base, wraps itself around the Chapel. Both buildings lie geographically within the London Borough of Bromley thus it was Bromley’s Worshipful Mayor who read a lesson at the service to celebrate the re-opening of the chapel, but this is the Kent countryside in all but name. Here London ends in the familiar ring of 1930s semis and the fields begin. In a diplomatic nod to a deeply felt local controversy, relatively little mention was made during the service of London’s newest museum, whose making closed the chapel for two years.


All airbases that have one foot in the Great War and the Royal Flying Corps are at the top of a hill. The first of our brave airmen needed all the help they could get to launch their impossibly frail wood and canvas flying machines and get high enough, quickly enough to intercept the Zeppelins heading for the capital. But it is Biggin Hill’s role in the Battle of Britain (July – October 1940) that defines its history. Part of a chain of airfields protecting the capital, Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons flying from Biggin Hill brought down 1400 enemy aircraft (of the total of 1884) at the cost of 453 pilots (of the total of 544 lost).


The Damp Squib Dilemma


Biggin Hill Memorial Museum is a one room museum with additional displays in a ticket-only room at the back of the 1950s chapel. The chapel with its beautiful angel stained glass windows and the tea room and shop complete the visit. It is certainly worthy of a two hour visit including time for refreshments.  I’d say that the visit combined with a pub lunch nearby isn’t enough for a day out.


 With the best will in the world I think your members will feel a bit underwhelmed if they arrive here after an early breakfast and an hour or two on the coach and this is the only thing on the agenda. You’ll need to combine the new Museum with one of the nearby attractions: Churchill’s Chartwell (NT), Emmetts Garden (NT) or Darwin’s Downe House (EH). Or, if you like that sort of thing, you might want to visit as part of a nicely crafted day out with a City & Village Tours top notch Blue Badge Guide.  


What’s that I hear? You would say that! Yes, of course I would but not just to compete with the entrance and lunch combo on offer elsewhere. Of course I want to compete, but it’s more than that. You see I really don’t want your group to be disappointed and I’m speaking here from experience. I’ve lost count of the number of organisers who’ve told me that their members thought that the Postal Museum was boring! It’s not, it’s a wonderful visit. But if you all you do is arrive there by coach, go in, come out again and then go for lunch nearby, then frankly it is all a bit of a damp squib. Lunch was nice, your disappointed members offer, thus damning your day out with faint praise.


In sharp contrast our groups who, having spent the morning in the company of an entertaining and erudite Blue Badge Guide discovering the story of sending a letter from Roman Times to the coming of the GPO, really enjoy the Postal Museum. It’s because they haven’t gone in cold. They’ve been warmed up to it and when they get there they are able to connect and engage with it in a really satisfying and enjoyable way. I don’t need to tell you that now it’s getting harder to fill your coaches the last thing you want to be doing is giving your folk a damp squib of a day out.


A disappointing day out isn’t worth it at any price. Don’t risk that with the new Biggin Hill Memorial Museum. You want to be knocking their socks off. And we can help you to do that with our visits to Biggin Hill as part of an engaging and richly satisfying day out called The Strongest Link. You’ll find the tour description here.



A Museum Launched By Austerity


First though, let’s begin with the almighty controversy that has surrounded the project. To mark the 1000th German aircraft downed during the Battle of Britain, a pilot’s party was held in the West End. Eighty London black cab drivers gave the tipsy air crews free rides back to Biggin Hill. A black cab steering wheel takes pride of place in a room at the back of St George’s RAF Memorial Chapel. This room can only be accessed if you’ve bought a ticket to the new museum. Although the chapel has been completely restored and will be open for free and for longer hours than ever before, the ticket-only room is just one of a list of contentious issues that have divided the Friends of the Chapel. The Friends’ website emphasises that the chapel is not the museum.

The Mayor of Bromley’s Official Car in front of chapel and the new museum with mouldering RAF buildings to the right


The RAF left Biggin Hill in the 1990s and all was well until in 2016 the Ministry of Defence announced they would no longer pay to maintain the chapel. Very soon after that withdrawal of support £1 million was secured from the Libor Fund (the near billion pound pot of money made up of fines on the banks for rigging inter-bank interest rates). This grant seeded further donations from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the London Borough of Bromley and individual donors that have now totalled some £5.4 million.


Plans were drawn up. Many of the Friends had campaigned for a museum for 30 years but when they saw what was proposed it really wasn’t what they had in mind. They were upset, as is the way of these things, when the project slipped from their grasp and into the hands of people who know all about grants. In the Kingdom of the Blind the one eyed man is King.


By the time the chapel closed in September 2017, for work on the museum to begin, there were 14,000 names on the petition against it. There are close to 30,000 names on the petition today fuelled by a dislike of the Robin Lee Architects design which has been condemned as everything from a prison and a public loo to a crematorium. Trees surrounding the chapel, including some in the Memorial Garden planted in honour of lost loved ones, were cut down. More outrage met the demolition of a chapel annexe, even though it only dated from the 1990s. And when it was revealed that the bricks for the new museum were made in Germany? Oh my! The rancour and rumour led to Sir Winston Churchill’s great-grandson Randolph Churchill, Patron of the museum, to write an open letter asking for local people to support the project. It hasn’t entirely worked – go to the museum’s Facebook page and already, in the few days since the opening, the reviews include some meaty disapproval from disgusted of Biggin Hill.

But here we are. It’s open. The Mayor of Bromley read a lesson in the chapel and hundreds of people braved the coldest weekend of the year to be among the first to visit the new museum.  So what is it like?


Grand Designs

Two Gate Guardians stand in front of museum and chapel. The Spitfire flown by Pilot Officer Geoffrey Wellum of 92 Squadron, and the Hurricane flown by Pilot Pete Brothers of 32 Squadron. Let us never forget that these brave men and their comrades are what this museum is all about. At the age of 19 Geoffrey Wellum, known as boy was the youngest Spitfire fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain.

Mr Wellum died last July, just short of his 97th birthday. Air Commodore Pete Brothers died at the age of 91, just before Christmas in 2008. Leading his flight of eight aircraft from 32 Squadron during one patrol, he encountered around 100 enemy bombers. He dived to attack them, but before he could open fire he was engaged by a number of Messerschmitt fighters. Despite being heavily outnumbered he was able to break away and close on a bomber, which he shot down. Later in the day, on a second sortie, he shot down a fighter. In order to relax as he was returning from combat, Brothers would open the cockpit canopy and light up a cigarette. Both men knew the chapel and Geoffrey Wellum (seen as a boy and on the Discovery Tablet) recorded some memories for the new museum a few months before he died.

Geoffrey Wellum at 19 and at  96 on the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum Discovery Tablet with a recording he made last year.


Aesthetically the new building is not as awful as its detractors would have it. One should after all acknowledge that the chapel at the heart of the new museum is no oil painting. It shares the drab Italianate styling beloved of the water board and, from the outside at least, has all the charm of an electricity substation. The humble design of the 1951 chapel is deliberate.


When the original chapel of three linked prefabs burned down in 1946, the desire to maintain the simple modesty of the original was a good fit for the post war austerity. This is the vernacular of limited materials. Although the design of the new museum echoes the functional design of the chapel it is a bit peculiar, a bit Grand Designy that they’ve gone for white bricks. White German bricks! Seen next to the brown bricks of the chapel, the new additions do look a bit plonked. But, again I emphasise this is not a pretty campus of architectural wonders. Next door are the utilitarian, slightly decaying buildings of the old air base: against these the new museum positively shines.


The Snagging List


First then, the niggles. One day, the folk designing a new visitor attraction will have a little light bulb moment and think if we want coach parties to come let’s go mad and make the café big enough for a coach party! The management have already cottoned on to the café limitations for groups and are planning to change the tables to seat more people. They’ve also promised to reserve the whole café for groups, which is fine on Tuesdays when only groups can visit, but for the rest of the time? Prepare for irate single travellers and thirsty families to give your folk daggers.


The four toilets are unisex – the lead balloon of coach parties. They’ve also gone for the current museum fashion for a seamless graphic and no door handles. It leaves you slightly apprehensive that they expect you to pee in the stainless steel urinal that runs the length of the wall. After all this is the only thing you can see when you enter the room that promised to contain the lavs. But, just in time, you hear a cistern flush

and the blank wall is broken by a door opening and the secret loos are revealed. The urinal turns out to be a very long trough of a hand basin. I’m hoping that toilet roll holders are on the snagging list and they don’t really want you to swivel 45 degrees at the waist to reach the loo roll perched on the sanitary bin. Thankfully they are quite spacious so at least you don’t have to back in like a Sainsbury’s lorry at the loading bay. You know ladies, like you have to at the theatre.

The shop has an interesting mix of merchandise and the café, though small, has views over the airfield and was serving seriously good coffee. Tea is served in rather marvellous tea pots. The Café is called The Nightingale after a much loved airman’s café on the old RAF base but there’s not a greasy spoon in sight.


What You Will See


The museum mission statement is to tell the story of Britain’s most famous fighter station through the personal experiences of those who served there, and the community that supported them. Many of the objects are personal and have been donated by people who served or lived at Biggin Hill, or by their relatives. They started collecting in 2015 and in all there are about 80 objects on show from an iconic pilot’s Irvin flying jacket to a Browning machine gun and an oil painting of the chapel. Yes! That’s right. An oil painting of the very chapel that I described as no oil painting!


Some museums come into being through a desire to bring a collection to public attention. At Biggin Hill the collection came into being to bring a museum to public attention. This is both its strength and its weakness. The home-spun nature of the collection beds it down to a very human, domestic scale. It is folksy, but at times the contemporary design shouts above a collection that whispers.


Houston We Have a Problem


Included in the admission price is a Discovery Tablet  “designed to enrich your experience through additional storytelling and special films and photographs”.


It’s resembles a mini iPad with a jaunty blue rubber frame in case you drop it or bash it against the display cases. The size of a 1940s white five pound note, you wear the tablet around your neck. It comes with big earphones that cover the whole of your ears, thus blocking you off from conversation and connection with your friends.


If you are visiting alone and you are familiar with this technology, all is well. But if

you aren’t then the Discovery Tablet is something of a chocolate teapot.


I saw several older visitors with tablets dangling uselessly around their necks.

They looked rather forlorn. Like evacuees. “Aren’t you going to use that?” I asked one lady. “I tried”, she apologised “but it’s switched itself off”. It hadn’t, but it had gone into sleep mode, which requires fiddling about in the folds of the blue rubber case to find the wake up button. I thought about showing her what to do but I recognised the slightly pleading I’m 83, please don’t ask me to go all NASA at my time of life look so I let her be.


As they hand out the Discovery Tablets they tell you it’s not actually a guided tour but more by way of being additional information. They are particularly thrilled to tell you it includes an introduction by Dan Snow. You know, Dan Snow off the telly. I found this all a bit odd, revealing maybe a lack of confidence. As if they lost their nerve and feared that their one room museum with 80 things in it might not be enough for your £7.50 ticket. So they stuffed a bit more into a tablet to hang round your neck. Friends of the chapel offended by the admission price and the German bricks may be soothed by knowing that the commentary on the Discovery Tablet is only available in English.


The Loop


The museum is of the design fashionable at the moment, combining traditional glass case displays with wall graphics, interactive digital table surfaces and a little side room showing a film on a loop. The film is not dissimilar to that shown at the Scramble Experience that opened at the Battle of Britain Memorial in Capel-le-Ferne on the Kent coast in 2015. Both films use actors and colour film to show the strikingly young Battle of Britain air crew writing for the scramble bell. At Biggin Hill the eight minute film is intercut with black and white film of real air crew from the 1940s. After a few seconds you realise that the colour film with the actors is reproducing the black and white film with the real crew. After a few minutes you wonder why they don’t just show the black and white film.


Down at Capel, the Scramble film has a powerful dramatic tension, capturing the awful fear that underpinned the heroic bravery of these young men. The first time I saw it my eyes filled with tears. Even now, after many viewings, the Capel film brings a lump to my throat. The Biggin Hill film didn’t do that. Indeed when the scramble bell went off at Biggin Hill it all went a bit Grattan’s Catalogue, with the actors striking model poses to an odd rappy soundtrack.


The museum is very attractive and better lit than many. The design echoes the 1950s flavour of the chapel but it is more at the trendy Festival of Britain end of the 1950s design spectrum. It’s a pleasant place to be. The robin’s egg blue theme is soothing. It might be old fashioned of me but I like a museum to show me the way, to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. I like arrows. Biggin Hill doesn’t have arrows, indeed I had to go back to the front desk to ask if an unmarked door at the end of the room was the route to the chapel or if I was in danger of setting off the alarm..  


The museum has thankfully avoided going too touchy-feely and digitised for the kids. There’s enough here for grown up interest and while there is nothing that will wow or astonish you, the personal nature of the objects is compelling. I found that I read less as I went round but thought more. About who gave the objects, or about who found them in the case of the pilot’s escape bar from a downed Spitfire. I thought about the men and women whose story is being told. Like I was supposed to. And therein lays the achievement of this little one room museum.

Dan Snow, (you know off the telly) in his Discovery Tablet introduction has this to say:

Historians often face the challenging job of representing history second hand and the heavy responsibility of telling other people’s stories on their behalf. However, Biggin Hill Memorial Museum is offering a very different experience. Through video interviews, photographs and written testimonies, the real people involved in the Battle of Britain will share their experiences with you first hand.

I hope visitors to the museum will be inspired through these honest accounts of life at war and the many people behind the military successes passed down as legend through the years.


Well said Mr Snow.


The Biggin Hill Memorial Museum

www.bhmm.org.uk

Tel: 01959 422 414

Open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 5pm. Tuesday is groups only although groups can visit on other days. Groups of 16+ people £6.50. Refreshments for groups need to be pre-booked. Tea & coffee served with biscuits is a hefty £3.95. Soup and a roll with a hot and cold drink is £5.95.


Nearby Attractions


Chartwell House NT (8 miles from Biggin Hill)

Open 01 March to 03 November 2019

Visit 3 hours. Group Adult £14

Café from 10am, timed house entries from 11am to 3.10pm.

Call 01732 868 381

https://nt.global.ssl.fastly.net/chartwell/documents/2019-chartwell-group-information-pack.pdf


Emmetts Garden NT (10 miles from Biggin Hill)

Occupying one of the highest points in the Kent Weald, this six acre garden and arboretum, once the estate of an Edwardian banker and keen plantsman, is laid out in the style made fashionable by Gertrude Jekyll.  In Spring, at bluebell time (29 April to 19 May) group admission is £10.50. This drops to £7.50 for the rest of the year.


Quebec House NT (8 miles from Biggin Hill)

A small Georgian house that was the childhood home of General James Wolfe, the visitor of the Battle of Quebec in 1759.Group admission is £5.50 and you can add a guided tour for £3pp. Open Wednesday to Sunday 27 February to 3 November. Maximum group size is 30 people.


Down House EH (3.5 miles from Biggin Hill)

Down House was the family home of Charles Darwin. You can stand in the study where he wrote 'On the Origin of Species', stroll through the gardens that inspired him, and visit his and wife Emma's newly recreated bedroom which overlooks the gardens. Let Sir David Attenborough take you on an interactive multimedia tour around the house, and discover how the great man developed his ground-breaking theories. Group admission for seniors  is £9.18pp. Down House, in the village of Downe, is open daily from April but check for later in the year. Call 01689 859119.


The Strongest Link

Make the most of a trip to the new Biggin Hill Memorial Chapel with our new guided day trip called The Strongest Link. It’s a full board day trip with morning coffee and biscuits, lunch and a cream tea included but there’s also a budget option leaving individuals to buy their own morning coffee and lunch and including tea and biscuits at the end of the afternoon. We begin with morning refreshments at Churchill’s Chartwell and explore the beautiful Kent countryside that reminded the Biggin Hill crews what they were fighting for each time they left the base.

Click here to read the new City & Village Tours itinerary