Brooklands Offers Eye-Opening Exhibits
The best way to beat jet lag is to sleep on flights to Europe and stay awake on the way home, then once landed to stay on the destination’s schedule. Knowing this, my English friends cleverly helped my family adjust to their time zone by coming up with a landing-day activity when we recently visited that would so captivate us we would be too excited to sleep.
The surprise was a visit to Brooklands, the birthplace of British motorsport and aviation. Built in 1907, it was initially a modern track on which to showcase the developments being made in British motorsports. It was the world’s first racing circuit with intentionally banked curves and was home to many racing records before World War II closed down racing in 1939.
Those years, however, were not only about auto racing. In 1908, pilots made the track into a dual-purpose track and aerodrome. From here pilots were trained and aircraft produced through both world wars and beyond.
We entered through a gift shop in one of several buildings in what was once a paddock area. In another building we found race cars from the past hundred years along with the gear necessary to maintain them. Brooklands was the original home to the British Grand Prix, so these were the fastest and most cutting-edge of their time. Historical documents, clothes, artifacts, flags and maps adorn the rooms.
Moving on, we found vintage motorcycles and bicycles that had been raced on the Brooklands circuit. A volunteer explained that his job is to polish up the motorcycles so they can be driven on weekends and look nice for visitors. In this room were also trophy cups for records that had been achieved here.
It’s possible to don goggles and step into one of the cars at the property’s 4-D theater to relive a race from the 1930s with full motion and the sights, sounds and smells that would have been a part of the experience. The theater also offers a 3-D film of the British Red Arrows flight squad and a 2-D film of the Le Man circuit.
Outside, we turned a corner to find a field full of commercial-sized airplanes that had been built at Brooklands’ aircraft manufacturing facilities – including a Concorde. This was the birthplace of the SST in partnership with France and now our only chance to board one. A docent toured us around the plane and had us sit in passenger seats while we experienced a simulated flight. He marveled with us that the plane had been built in two halves: The British half was built with imperial measurements while the French half had been metric. Miraculously, the two halves came together in the world’s first supersonic passenger airliner.
After our walk-through, we visited the Concorde’s flight simulator, where pilots had been trained. It was originally off-site and full-motion, but when it was relocated to Brooklands, the movers unceremoniously cut it straight in two, rendering it useless. Fortunately, engineering students meticulously reconnected every wire, and it is now open for visitors who can see what the cockpit was like when the nose of this supersonic bird dropped for landing.
We toured the Vickers VC10 that had belonged to the Sultan of Oman, with its gold velvet seats and luxurious sleeping quarters, and we peeked into the tiny shack that became the first air passenger ticket booth in the world when it sold a ticket in 1911. Other firsts that happened here in the early 1900s include the first British air show and the licensing of the first British woman pilot. Bombed in 1940, it largely survived the war and continued on as one of the most important aircraft-production facilities in Britain, with more than 18,000 airplanes of 250 types being built on-site.
Many of the facilities are indoors, a lovely feature for an often-rainy climate. We enjoyed tea, sandwiches and scones at the property’s centrally located cafe and then ducked into the large building that is home to the post-World War II Stratosphere Chamber. Here aircraft were tested to conditions that simulated those found at an altitude of 70,000 feet, the expected altitude for Cold War-era aircraft being developed on the field. In addition to learning how the gargantuan chamber re-created such harsh environments, we learned about different kinds of aircraft engines as we wandered among them with a docent on hand for questions. In the back of the building were various types of bombs used in World War II.
In another hangar we walked around the Wellington Bomber, a World War II airplane on an ill-fated training mission that had been lost in Scotland’s Loch Ness during a blizzard on New Year’s Eve 1940. The aircraft was found and resurrected in 1985 and is now being meticulously rebuilt by volunteers.
The Vimy Pavilion is home to replica airplanes from the early 1900s. One such aircraft, the Roe I biplane, was the first British airplane home-built and flown at Brooklands in 1908 by its creator.
Visiting Brooklands was a marvelous way to beat our jet lag. We spent the entire afternoon — and never gave a thought to being tired.
WHEN YOU GO
Brooklands is an hour’s drive or a 45-minute train ride from London’s Waterloo Station. For more information, visit www.brooklandsmuseum.com.
Watch the surviving parts of the Brooklands Race track from above in the video below:
Lesley Sauls is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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