Mansion House Drive
Friday October 13th 2017
Linda arrived late for her rendezvous with Jo at Stanmore Station having forgotten that while the Jubilee Line is both fast and frequent Stanmore is still at the end of the line and therefore takes a while. Also you need to wait for the (infamous) 142 bus route, which did come after a bearable wait, on what was a mellow October day.
After chugging uphill quite slowly we were pleased to spot some reassuring brown signs for the Museum thus ensuring we did not walk in the wrong direction, a step we are apt to make… Almost immediately on turning right you come to a dual (car and pedestrian) gate and an operative springs out of a slightly upmarket sentry box to ask your business – as museum visitors you are directed to go left at the roundabout.
A bit of historical context is required – indeed there was once an Augustinian priory here once, founded probably circa 1170, which went the way of most monasteries in England come Henry VIII’s dissolution. Apparently it was offered to Archbishop Cranmer who swapped it for some land in Wimbledon, and various different entitled families lived here for the next two centuries. In 1788 the 9th Earl of Abercorn decided on a refit and engaged the already famous (Sir) John Soane to redesign his home, and a great job he made of it.
At this point the house was a hub for the Great and the Good, so much so that the widow of William IV came here to retire and die. Subsequent owners were less successful socially but did manage to add the Italian style ‘campanile’ and gardens. An attempt to launch it as a hotel was not successful (I suspect not country enough to be a real retreat and too far from town to be a London hotel) so its fate became one of the usual ones of declining stately homes – a school, which it was till 1936, when the Fighter Command part of the Royal Air Force moved in preparing for what they thought might be the next major conflict.
RAF admin. remained till 2008 (by now Fighter and Bomber commands had joined to become Strike Command) but by then the site was neither in a good state nor accessible to the public. Cue Barratts the builders, themselves tainted somewhat by their association with a certain Prime Minister, who developed the site as essentially a large gated community with lots of communal green space and restricted and refined housing, while also making a £6 million contribution towards the setting up of the Museum which opened in 2015.
Apologies for the lengthy lead-in, but both externally – gleaming and clean sandstone, restored and landscaped gardens – and internally the fabric of the house and the museum installation demonstrate hefty financial but thoughtful investment. Staffed, we suspected, largely by volunteers you are handed a laminate guide to the order of visit. Some of the earlier rooms and corridors are a bit like a rabbit warren and there are lots of competent but not very exciting water colours of aeroplanes and airfields various interspersed with photos. There are also separate tributes to both the Observer Corps and the Radar Section, set up in 1936 essentially as military research.
The ground floor trail then leads into a room set up with desks and period phones – each open drawer contains an appropriate display be it orders for the day, memos to the cabinet or headlines from the newspapers of the day. As becomes obvious as you learn more about Air Vice Marshal Dowding, he made clear to Churchill in several crisp memos (oh, I do love a historic typed memo, now completely superseded by email) that any impending war needed a strong air defence and attack system, and hence his appointment pretty much near the end of his career to head up Fighter Command at Bentley Priory.
There are some tracking charts displayed (more of this later) including one of Hess’s flight into Scotland in an abortive attempt (unknown to Hitler) to make peace. He was of course captured and lived on for a very long time in different places of captivity including, briefly, the Tower of London.
The museum offers a short film unusual in that it is not the standard-issue composite of newsreel clips and heroic commentary (though we do get Chamberlain announcing war) but in fact a kind of 3D video projection/reconstruction as you look into Dowding’s office and see him and hear him in his own words – actually quite effective.
From there you enter the grand hall and even grander staircase hung with Honours boards, squadron shields and a lace banner, a gift from Nottingham. Interestingly we had seen the same lace panel in the Croydon Museum leading me to wonder whether they had been ‘mass-produced’ ?
At this point you are offered a respite from aerial warfare, namely a glimpse into Dowager Queen Adelaide’s very finely restored room which comes across as a haven of femininity with its chaise longue and gracious tea cups.
To be fair the Museum has included very many personal testaments of serving WAAFS who must have been very busy typing and telephoning on a 24 hour basis through the war.
From the hall you step into the Rotunda which is one of Soane’s masterpieces (‘better than his dusty dark house,’ said Jo, who had really not enjoyed our experience there) with light through the dome illuminating what is essentially a tribute to the pilots who did not make it either during the actual Battle of Britain or thereafter. For each biography there are medals and artefacts – a log book here or a cap there. In the centre are medals and badges with their individual citations and explanations; for e.g. a small caterpillar badge meant you had ‘bailed out courtesy of your silk parachute’ a fact probably known to those of you who read all those Biggles type books…
The trail then goes into what is arguably the most interesting room, called by Dowding ‘The Filter Room’ where a combination of reports from observers with radar results were carefully plotted on a grid system overlaying the coastline of East and Southern UK to show where alien aircraft were coming from and heading to so that the information could be collated /filtered and evaluated and appropriate orders could be sent on to the various airfields to ‘scramble’ and hopefully intercept the invading planes. What is clear is that Dowding devised and perfected this system so that the comparatively few planes and trained fighters he had could be used in the most focussed and effective way, and as we know it held off an invasion.
It is effectively an air traffic control approach without benefit of computers or other communication.
The last room has a smaller model of the actual filter room – there is also a gallery where the higher ranks sat presumably to set priorities. You can also sit in the mocked up cockpit of a Spitfire, which is indeed a small and thus manoeuvrable aircraft.
Back out in the hall you are allowed to climb the stairs but not penetrate to the rooms beyond, and are also
The café opens out onto the Terrace of the house with beautifully restored terrazzo flooring and a view over the gardens and £4m houses built up on the slopes.
This is essentially a one trick pony – a museum built on the career and achievements of a single man but with substantial tributes to crews of young pilots. By all accounts Dowding was not an easy man but he did care about his men and ensured they had adequate ‘free time’ on their bases between operations. The staff here must have worked hard at times of crisis and the quality of the restoration and presentation of the material pays full tribute to all the men and women who participated in the Battle of Britain in certainly one of the most lovely and peaceful settings of the various military/war museums we have visited.