I had the best Mother’s Day treat this year. We visited the Shuttleworth Collection on one of those mornings when the sun finally feels a little more committed to springtime. We were the first visitors of the day to this amazing vintage aviation museum; the only other vehicle in the carpark was a devastatingly handsome racing green MG and the ladies in the café were leaning on the till and gazing out of the windows at the landing field.
That Shuttleworth is a museum with a difference becomes obvious as you wander around the hangars – there’s mud on the wheels of many of the aircraft, and each has a neat little drip tray to stop fuel from leaking on to the pristine floors. I love the RAF Museum in London, but there is a sad sterility to the frozen Spitfires that are kennelled in the vast hangars at Hendon: at Shuttleworth everything is on a smaller scale but the aircraft are let out to fly. There is a cheerful domesticity to the place reflected in the modest display cases. Here’s a rusty old German bomb, there’s Albert Ball’s rear view mirror and mucky puttees. Grainy photographs of wartime pilots decorate the walls and everywhere there is the conviction that this is a much-loved place full of treasures.
A Bleriot X1 (the oldest airworthy plane in the world) rubs shoulders with a sprightly de Haviland Chipmunk. There’s a sleek Kirby Kite from 1937, a glider built like a Chippendale sideboard with the profile of a seagull, and the extraordinary Little Nellie, the autogyro that Sean Connery convincingly ‘piloted’ in ‘You Only Live Twice’. Gleaming radial engines flower like exotic plants in all corners.
It’s not just aircraft either; we were half expecting to see Corporal Jones in his butcher’s van come lurching around the corner to join a sparkling line-up of vintage transport that included a 1913 McCurd 5-ton lorry with the legend ‘British Refined Tate Sugars: Direct From the Refinery To The Table’ on its side: the Royal Flying Corps took themselves to war in vehicles like these, cobbling together what motor transport they could find to transport men and materials to France.
After a bacon roll amongst throngs of leather-jacketed bikers in the café, we walked out of the museum and joined a party gathered round one of the aircraft that had been wheeled out to blast its 80 horse-power engine into the crisp Bedfordshire air. Of all the (nearly 60) airworthy planes that could have been let out for the day, it turned out to be a Bristol Scout – the only one in Shuttleworth’s care that Morris'squadron actually flew in the Battle of the Somme.
As the propeller was pulled round, ‘Contact!’ was called, and the rotary engine spluttered violently into life, I was transported back to 1916. A volunteer hung himself grimly over the Bristol’s tail to stop it from breaking away from the chocks, and the pilot’s hair shot up like spindrift from a mountain. Two ear-blasting minutes later the engine was switched off and there were quiet exclamations of delight from the group around us. There wasn’t one of us who hadn’t hoped to see the aircraft wriggle free and sail off to Biggleswade. That thing in my eye wasn’t just smoke; for the first time I had experienced the authentic sights and sounds that Morris lived with in the nine short months of his RFC career.
The life of a Great War airmen was dirty, uncomfortable and dangerous even before they came face to face with an enemy. Seeing the Bristol Scout fired up for just a few minutes on the ground gave me a visceral flash of acquaintance with men like Lionel Morris, and it was a powerful and moving sensation.
Shuttleworth is open seven days a week from 9.30 to 5pm in the summer, when they have regular flying displays.
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
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