After a couple of summer months without much travel, I went to the UK in September 2016.
My first stop was Duxford, specifically the air museum there. (The official name is Imperial War Museum Duxford, but it's mostly about aviation in general and has a large number of commercial aircraft as well as military planes.)
Oddly enough, I learned about that place from a radio comedy show, where there were some offhand mentions of Duxford. Which makes it a bit awkward if someone there asks you "How did you find out about this place? Friends? Google? Our website? News?" Presumably, it doesn't help their PR department much either - it's probably not a reasonable plan for a museum to get more public recognition by getting onto more radio comedy programs about fictional charter airlines. It's a somewhat limited platform.
In any case, I knew there were planes at "Duxford", so I looked up where it was and found to my surprise that it was quite close to Cambridge, where I was heading anyway.
I also found that they offer flights in vintage planes. (Or at least someone does. The flights are not offered by the museum, but by a different company, operating on the museum premises. I'm not sure whether that company is in some way owned by the museum or a completely separate thing, but it doesn't really matter.)
I like flying in old planes (and I did fly in a Stampe SV4 earlier this summer), so I looked through their options. They do offer flights in a Spitfire, in a Dragon Rapide and a Tiger Moth.
The Spitfire flights look interesting, but seriously expensive (about 3000 pounds for a 30 minute flight), so that wasn't an option.
But flying with a Dragon Rapide or a Tiger Moth was much more reasonably priced. And they had a neat offer that included a Dragon Rapide flight (with a Spitfire flying nearby) and a Tiger Moth flight.
So I went for that.
It also felt strangely appropriate to fly in the Tiger Moth. In Summer 2009, I did fly in a Stampe SV-4. And then the opportunity came up to fly in a Tiger Moth, so I did that a bit later in the same year. So it seemed kind of right after having a Stampe SV-4 flight in summer 2016 to follow that up with a Tiger Moth flight later the same year.
But when I arrived at Duxford the day before the flights, things looked a bit gloomy. It was fairly windy outside (last weekend in September is not one where you can expect calm flying conditions) and when I checked in at the hotel, I was told that they had some frustrated guests, as most of the flights had been cancelled that day.
But I had a lot of luck the next day - it was still windy, but the wind was constant (often it's not the wind they are worried about - unless it's a gale or something like that - but sudden gusts of wind) and it was blowing straight down the runway (they had crosswinds the previous day). So there wouldn't be flight cancellations. Quite the opposite in fact, as they were doing a lot of extra flights that day to accommodate some customers that had their flights cancelled the previous day.
And, as will be obvious from the photos, it got nice and sunny in the afternoon. Fairly unexpected for autumn weather.
The first flight was the one in the Dragon Rapide, a passenger airplane from the 1930's.
But before that, a quick photo opportunity with a Spitfire.
(They told us: "Don't just stand there - pose!" Hence the somewhat odd look...)
Then into the Dragon Rapide. (They got three of them at the museum - two silver-gray ones and one with a dark blue body.)
From the outside it looks a bit like the Antonow AN-2 I've been in:
But the Dragon Rapide is much smaller. It takes fewer passengers and there is not much room to move around inside. (The Antonow has something like a real 'center aisle'. In the Dragon Rapide, you pretty much have to squeeze your way through the seats. And once the armrests are deployed (they fold outwards from the seats), there's no way through.) And the passengers need to enter in a specific order - heavy passengers shouldn't get into the front seat for weight distribution reasons, but passengers also shouldn't sit in the front seats first - probably because the plane might get front-heavy and tip over - so the passengers in the front need to enter after the ones sitting near the wings, which makes movement a bit tricky. And the pilot enters last, so he has to be reasonably nimble to get to the flight deck. Where he occupies the only seat, as the plane has a center pilot seat and no room for a co-pilot ot anything like that. It's a really small plane for a commercial airliner.
It also had the strangest 'emergency exit' I've seen so far.
The plane is made mostly from plywood and cloth - and the emergency exit has a small metal wire sown into the canvas, so if you pull the rings on that wire, you actually cut a hole into the hull of the plane.
As it was explained in the 'security brief' (where for once the "the aircraft might differ from other planes you have flown in"-line was appropriate), the exit was built for people with a slightly different 'average body mass' and many modern passengers would probably get stuck trying to exit there. So it would probably be best to avoid the emergency exit and just use the door, which is right next to it.
In any case, we were soon airborne and did a couple of circles around the countryside and the airfield. (Note that the thing on the left side of the second picture is just a reflection in the plane window - not a small tornado in the English countryside.)
While we were looking at the scenery, one of the Tiger Moths had taken off and was flying nearby.
A couple of minutes later, a Spitfire came up and flew besides us.
I was surprised how close it got.
I knew that the flight I booked was called "Wing to wing with a Spitfire", but I didn't expect them to mean it. My assumption was that the Spitfire would fly somewhere close - maybe 30 meters away from us.
So when the Spitfire came wing-to-wing with us, it felt a bit like being part in a 'formation flying' display.
While the Dragon Rapide flew a straight line, the Spitfire dived under us and went to the other side, so that the people sitting there had a good view as well.
As the weather was improving (and the Spitfire needed to go slow to keep close to the Dragon Rapide), the Spitfire pilot opened the cockpit canopy after a while.
From a car driver's perspective, it looked a bit odd that the pilot kept looking directly at us. It always felt like you should be yelling "Look where you're going!", but of course that doesn't make any sense in this situation. The critical thing was to pay attention where our wing was in relation to his wing, and that meant looking over his wing at our wing (and since I was sitting at the window over the wing, looking in my direction). It's not like there's anything you're likely to run into in front of you. (It still seems strange if the pilot doesn't seem to be paying attention to where he is going.)
After about ten minutes of flying close to us, one of the other Dragon Rapides had gone up into the air, so the Spitfire left us to buzz around that one.
So we went for some more sightseeing and made a short detour to Audley End House & Gardens, which is a local attraction of some sort.
Then it was time to head back across the fields to the landing strip at the museum.
When we approached the airfield, there was a big smoke cloud coming up from the ground and I thought at first something had caught fire. But they just had tried to start the engines on the B-17 Flying Fortress and that's what it looks like when you do that. (Though the B-17 Flying Fortress didn't fly that day - I'm not sure whether it was not supposed to and they were just doing checks on the engines or whether they had planned to fly and something went wrong when starting up and then decided not to fly.)
I had a bit of time before my Tiger Moth flight was due, so I stayed close to the airfield and took a few pictures of Tiger Moths, Dragon Rapides and the Spitfire, starting, landing, taxiing and just standing around.
These ones look a bit like the guy is trying to get the Dragon Rapide to perform tricks.
"Bad plane! I'm very disappointed in you."
It also became clear what the little thing standing out on the top of the Spitfire cockpit is.
Quite obviously it's a hat stand!
Anyway, it was time for me to have my Tiger Moth flight.
While you're not allowed to take a camera with you, they take a picture of you before the flight and also take a video while you're in the plane. This also includes the forward view, which is nice, as you don't have it when you're in the plane - once you're seated, you can't really look over the motor - all you have is sideward views.
The flight is a bit unusual, since you actually get to fly the Tiger Moth for a bit.
Which is an interesting thing to do.
Well, getting the opportunity to fly an airplane is inherently interesting. (Unless you're a professional pilot, presumably.)
But one of the stories about Tiger Moths are that they don't handle well.
Supposedly it was a popular training plane back in the late 1930's as it was a bit unforgiving when the pilot did something wrong. So if you wanted to find out whether someone had the talent to be a 'real' pilot (as opposed to a 'fair weather pilot'), you put him in a Tiger Moth, as any skills (or lack of skills) by the pilot would be more visible than with other planes.
Not sure whether that's true. (I also did see accounts describing the Tiger Moth as 'docile and forgiving'.)
But knowing the story made me a little more nervous about flying one.
While nothing bad happened, of course, and I did manage to get the plane turning and back to level flight on my own, without the pilot needing to come to the rescue, I'm now pretty sure that I don't have any hidden piloting ability I didn't know of.
The flight stick is surprisingly sensible. As there is no 'power steering', moving the flight stick pulls on wires, which are connected to the ailerons. (It's literally 'fly by wire', except for the fact that the phrase now usually means the exact opposite.) So I had expected that it would take a fair amount of pulling to achieve any noticeable effect. But you just need a small motion of the stick (maybe a centimeter or two) to start a turn.
And when you start to turn, the nose of the plane dips noticeably, so you need to pull up while turning. Not that hard to do, but it took me a bit by surprise, since I just expected the plane to roll a bit.
I only got to fly the plane for a short time, but it was a fun thing to do.
Back on the ground, I had some time to pay attention to the more traditional (i.e. non-flying) museum exhibits.
There was some interesting stuff standing around, especially in the big hall, which got, among other planes, one of the first Concordes (one of the testing prototypes - it never flew in commercial services) and also the balloon (well, technically just the capsule ) used by Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson to cross the Atlantic.
Part of the museum is also the "American Air Museum" - in a separate building, set a bit apart.
I assume that's partly because the museum is a bit embarrassed to have it on its ground.
There are quite a few interesting planes in there, which are seldom exhibited outside the US, like a Lockheed U-2, a Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird or a Boeing B-52D Stratofortress.
But the text displays come across as self-pittying, whiny propaganda that should have gone out of fashion with Senator McCarthy.
Apparently, dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was ok, since it saved the lives of US prisoners of war, "who would have been executed" in the case of a land invasion. The main thing you learn about the war in Vietnam is about the heroics of battlefield medics. (Not that much of a mention why there were wounded soldiers there.) Or a big headline about how they treated Gary Powers 'like a spy'. There doesn't seem to be much made of the fact that this was mainly because he was flying over the USSR in a spy plane.
And so on. It's all about Americans being heroic and helping other Americans. Other countries or people don't show up a lot.
Which might still be acceptable on an exhibition on some air force base in the US, but for an exhibition outside of the US, the lack of awareness that other lives might matter as well and that there are other points of view, is in bad taste.
There's also stuff where you are wondering "What were they thinking?" and "Didn't anyone pay attention?"
For example this quote:
Now, poker is not at all about making sure that your hand is the strongest. (If you try that, it usually involves cheating.)
The basic idea of poker as a cold war metaphor might make sense - you attempt to mislead the other players about the strength of your own hand.
But using a quote that just gets it completely wrong - why didn't anyone notice and get a better one?
Anyway, moving on...
In the meantime, the weather outside had become nice and sunny (a somewhat unexpected sight in late September), so I spent a lot of time standing outside, enjoying the sun and watching the Dragon Rapides and Tiger Moths.
There was even a bit of formation flying with the four Tiger Moths.
But then it was time to head back to the hotel, walking a bit across the countryside
I went to London the next day. One of the things I wanted to do there was to go to Millennium Dome (or at least the building that was used to be called that...)
I have been there only once, back in February 2000, when the Millennium was still fresh and the Dome housed the 'Millennium Experience' exhibition, for which is was initially built.
As I wasn't in any particular hurry, I took a boat from the Tate Gallery to the Dome.
The view has changed quite a lot since 2000. Back then, Canary Wharf, on the other side of the river, was only starting to fill up with skyscrapers. And the activities around the 2012 Olympic Games added a fair bit to the scenery as well.
There's now also 'The Line', an art trail that includes such works as an inverted electricity pylon or a sign post (placed right on the prime meridian) that points at itself - the long way round.
There is now also a cable car link between the two sides of the river. Riding a gondola back and forth provides good views of the Dome, London City Airport and, in the distance, Greenwich Observatory.
But the main reason for travelling to the Dome was not to look at it and its surroundings, but to walk across it.
A couple of years ago, a company has built a walkway across the dome.
It, essentially, is a blue rubber conveyor belt (without the belt conveyor system) that is suspended on cables from the support poles of the Dome. It is not attached to the roof of the dome, except for the viewing platform at the top, which is attached to the actual Dome, to keep the platform stable in winds.
Going across the Dome is probably the easiest 'urban mountaineering' tour there is.
They even offer trips for people in wheelchairs. (Although this needs some preparation and good weather conditions. There seems to be a waiting list of more than a year for wheelchair tours).
As the walkway stays close to the roof, there's never an issue with a fear of heights. You never walk close to any sort of big drop. Most of the time, you're not more than a meter above the roof.
But, of course, they still make you wear the whole safety gear - a jumpsuit (or, in summer, just a vest), special shoes, full harness and a safety cable to attach to. And no bags or stuff in your pocket. The only thing you're allowed to take is a camera or phone - and even that you are only allowed to take out of your pocket at the viewing platform. (But at least you can take pictures from there.)
The safety system is a bit irritating. You need to keep a kind of 'metal rhombus', made from four metal rods with moveable joints at the ends, pressed 'flat' to allow the safety catch to move freely.
The moment you pull at the end (and you create a 'long' rhombus instead of a 'flat' one), the catch locks immediately.
For an environment like this, where you can't really 'fall' off, but where you might slide down the safety cable until you reach the next attachment point (also possibly causing a bit of a domino effect), it makes sense to have a system that clamps to the cable and stops you immediately, even if you just slip 10 centimeters. But the whole thing is a bit fiddly and probably causes a lot of pinched fingers. And it is a bit tricky to move the safety catch over the attachment points of the safety cable, requiring a lot of wiggling. A bit inconvenient, but nothing that is problematic.
So it's a fun walk to get up there - the rubber belt adds a nice spring to your step. (You still need to walk uphill the equivalent of about 15 floors, but the slope is reasonable.)
And once on the top, it's a nice view.
After a while the next group started to approach the viewing platform, so we had to start our descent.
It is a nice feature that the walkway goes across the roof (and not just up and down the same way). Technically, the way down is slightly steeper than the way up, but that's not noticeable (28° up, 30° down).
It's a fun tour to do.
After being back on the ground, there was one more thing I wanted to do before heading back to central London.
The Millennium Dome is located near the prime meridian and when I was there in 2000, the line was marked on the ground and it was the first time I stood on the prime meridian. (I have been to the Royal Greenwich Observatory since.) So I tried to locate it again.
It was no longer a real tourist attraction.
It still exists, but it is now just something that can be found at the edge of a parking lot near a hotel (which hadn't been there in 2000).
And I'm not even sure how long it will remain - there where various markings on the ground, so it might well be that it will be paved over when they expand the parking lot.
Sic transit gloria mundi and all that...
But the main reason for travelling from Duxford to London was not to climb the Dome.
The main reason was to go to the theatre.
Specifically, to see a play by Harold Pinter, named "No Man's Land".
Well, not really.
Yes, I did go and see it, but the main reason was not to see the play.
It was about the actors.
Two of them, to be exact.
The two main roles were played by Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.
The whole thing made me a bit uncomfortable. I am not much of a theatre goer. And I knew that this was more a 'fan' thing than any real interest in the play.
I clearly wasn't the only one facing this. A woman was wearing a Star Trek shoulder bag in the theatre, while some other guy muttered "I'll be seeing two of my childhood heroes tonight."
But I decided to take it seriously and concentrate on (hopefully) seeing two fine actors perform. And not sit there the whole time thinking "Wow, it's Magneto and Prof. Xavier!" or "It's Jean-Luc Picard and Gandalf!" (Or, possibly worse, "It's the bloke from Lifeforce and Death from the Last Action Hero.)
And I hoped that the magic of theatre would work and I could see them in their roles without cross-referencing them in the back of my mind with other things they did.
It kind of worked.
Both are fine actors.
I probably should add that the play has four roles - the other two were played by Owen Teale and Damien Molony - but nobody cared about them. (But the roles are somewhat minor in any case.)
And the play is clearly 'actor friendly'. It gives the actors a lot of things to do and the effective position of the characters in relation to each other changes quite a bit. Especially Spooner (the role played by Ian McKellen) goes from talkative and controlling, through defensive to almost paranoid, on to greedy, jovial, via fake nostalgia to toadying.
Hirst, the Patrick Stewart has slightly fewer 'persona changes' to work with, but has the stronger position in the play.
But the problem is that it is an absurdist play, which seems to be theatre talk for 'no plot'.
It's probably great for liberal arts essays, since almost any interpretation can be projected onto the play. But then, almost anything can be projected on a white wall.
The whole thing feels a bit like a magician going on stage and performing double lifts and Hindu shuffles for an hour.
It allows the magician to show his skills, it can be appreciated by other magicians for the presentation and the quality of the execution.
But it's not a magic trick - is just an underlying skill on which illusions are based. And it's quite dull for the general audience.
So the Pinter piece is similar. The good thing is that it allows actors to show their acting (and since I wanted to see Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart act, it was probably a good play to see them in). And it's a play highly praised by other theatrical people.
But it's dull. Good for actor seeing actors act. Not really doing anything else.
I probably should have gone to the John Finnemore sketch try-out nights in Kensington, which would have had more plot(s), more characters and been more interesting, but I only found about that when I had already bought the tickets for the Pinter play.
Now, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart playing Double Acts by John Finnemore - that's an intriguing idea...
After travelling down from Duxford to London, I went north to Cambridge again.
I did a bit of the standard tourist stuff there.
Had a tour with a punt on the Cam. (This was a 'chauffeured punt tour', unlike the one in Oxford a couple of years ago, where I did my own punting).
Also visited King's College grounds and King's College Chapel.
A slightly more unusual visit was an afterhours visit to Christ's College.
Charles Darwin studied theology there, and while it doesn't look that way, his former room is now an office, shared by four lecturers.
Yes, that's an office.
Yes, it is used.
Yes, that is what it looked like 2016.
It's an odd environment in any case, mixing history and arbitrary artefacts.
Most colleges in Cambridge have alumni who became famous later on. But many of them were just there as students, so by the time they became well known, their rooms had been used by many other students.
So it's similar with Darwin.
It is known that he resided in this room as a student, but no one can say whether, for example, these chairs were something he sat in, or whether they were moved in from some other room later on.
Same with the bedchamber (a small adjacent room). It's probably not the bed Darwin slept in, but nobody really knows.
Same with the stuff on the shelf - it most likely didn't belong to Darwin (why should he leave a gun behind at the college?), but it's stuff the college owns, which fits the time period. So that might be the candle holder Darwin used. But it might also be one used by some forgotten student three rooms further on. It's not like whoever was responsible for polishing the candle holders paid much attention to which one went back to which room.
Old colleges are odd places...
There was one more place I visited in Cambridge (though I didn't take any pictured there) and that was the Scott Polar Research Institute Museum.
I'm generally interested in polar regions and early explorations there. As someone noted, it's a region where you can read the early history of exploration in first person accounts by the people who did it. And it's a reasonable amount of reading to do.
And the Scott Polar Research Institute, not surprisingly, given the name, has a good amount of original material (writings and objects) from Scott's travels.
There's also some things from Shackleton's travel there (obviously some from the Discovery expedition with Scott, but also from the better known Endurance expedition) and also from Franklin's attempted Northwest Passage (well, mostly from the expeditions that followed, trying to find the Erebus and the Terror).
I didn't expect much from the rest of the museum.
It's a small museum anyway.
Basically it's just the entry hall to the research institute.
Being a museum is not the main function of the place, it's more a showcase of stuff they have at the institute.
But despite that, it's very good and has surprising things in it.
Although the main focus is on Antarctica (due to the Scott history), they also have a small section on the northern Arctic regions. I didn't expect anything there that I hadn't seen before in other museums. Some sleds and kayaks, bits of Inuit clothing, various goggles, knifes and whips; carvings in stone and walrus tusks.
All present, of course.
But there was also an unexpected carving of an Inuit hanging onto a runaway snowmobile. (Which I found quite cool, as I get bored of modern 'native' artists doing the traditional motives over and over again. Yes, of course they can carve seals, birds, dogs and polar bears. But it isn't 1900 anymore. Why not have carvings of laptops, PlayStation controllers, helicopters or the Death Star? I'm aware that the reason that you find carvings of traditional motives in Inuit art shops for the same reasons that painters still do oil paintings of tree covered hills, still lifes, Greek island villages and gypsies. These are 'standard' motives and sell easier at flea markets. But I hadn't seen any non-traditional Inuit carvings before (while I have seen oil paintings of fax machines, soft drink cans or pinball machines - not often, but some artists do them). So I was unexpectedly glad to see unusual Inuit art. It's also the first I've seen that looks a bit playful. (I've looked up the artist since - most of his work is of wildlife, but he also has done a 'Man on ATV' sculpture. Almost to prove a point - all the works on the gallery website are marked as 'sold' - the only exception being the 'Man on ATV'...)
Two other strange items were goggles.
As there wasn't much glass in Inuit culture, traditional snow goggles are a piece of carved wood or walrus tusk with just a small slit to see through. (Something like this).
Most polar museums have a couple of these.
But here were also two unusual variants.
One was a kind of deluxe version, used by a British explorer. They were made from teak or some other dark wood. Polished, streamlined and slim - they still would look quite stylish today.
The other one was made from metal and had little sliders to adjust the size of the slit. So if you went inside or needed a wider view, you could open them up, but in sunny conditions, you could just slide them down and only have a small opening to see through. These goggles also looked quite stylish and wouldn't look out of place in any steampunk convention.
Unfortunately I couldn't find any further information or a photo of either of these in the online collections of the museum.
Then I looked at the gear from the early Antarctic expeditions.
Interesting stuff. Some taken obvious from Inuit designs and ideas, so they looked a bit old-fashioned, but highly practical. Then there was some stuff where you automatically go "What were they thinking?", like thin leather boots with high shafts, which leave no place for thick socks and had long shoelaces and tiny holes to move them through - something that's clearly not a good idea when it's cold outside and you should be wearing gloves. And probably hard to dry as well.
(Ok, so I wear a leather jacket and jeans when I'm going dogsledding - both not the ideal choice for the environment - but that's only in moderately cold temperature and when I have 'real' polar clothing as backup. Taking those to an expedition into the unknown, into the serious cold, far away from any support line - that's asking for serious trouble.)
And then there were some "Interesting? Why did nothing come out of this?", like a pair of shoes that had a wide canvas strap around them instead of a shoelace, which seem much easier to handle with gloves. The upper part was also made from some kind of canvas, which dries a lot easier than leather and probably doesn't get as stiff when frozen. I didn't find a picture of these particular boots either, but it seems that there were similar ones in use around 1980.
They also had one sled of the type used during the Scott expedition - and that looks surprisingly sensible for the time. I had expected something more substantial (like a wooden children's sled, just longer) and lower (more like a pulka), but the sled seemed quite adequate for the purpose. (Not that it did Scott a lot of good in the end...)
Talking of which...
Given the fate of the last Scott expedition, the last bit of the museum visit was a bit morbid. They have the originals of most of the 'last letters' Scott and the other expedition members wrote.
Especially Scott, as the leader, wrote, when he was fairly sure that none of them would make it out alive, some letters to the wives of the expedition members (including one to his own wife, addressed "to my widow").
The letters are all a bit strange - especially Scott's seem mostly written for the purpose to look good in the history books and keep the image of the brave and unflappable Englishman up. (While at the same time coming across as somewhat petulant - especially "I want to tell you that I was not too old for this job. It was the younger men that went under first.")
Anyway (and that's getting a bit long anyway), the museum had some interesting and fascinating stuff - way beyond what I expected from an (essentially) one room museum.
The only thing that I had been hoping for, but didn't get to see were some pages of the South Polar Times.
To keep themselves occupied during the polar winter, they published a newsletter in the camp, the 'South Polar Times'.
It's presumably a weird mix of drawings, photographs, verses, scientific papers, humorous notes, caricatures, debates and 'reports from the camp'.
There are references to it in some books and some pages can be found online, but it would be interesting to see some of the original pages or be able to sit down and look through a copy of it.
To be fair, they actually had a copy available in the shop.
But that was behind glass.
There had been one high quality reproduction a century after the expeditions (it was published on the Discovery and Scott's last expedition) but at 600 pounds for volumes I-III (I assume that's for all three of them, not for individual volumes) and 275 pounds for volume IV, it was a bit too much for an ad-hoc purchase. Especially as this is just something I am slightly curious about. I'm not a serious polar scholar.
In any case - after a summer without real travel, it's nice to be able to get out and see and do some stuff. Flying in vintage planes, seeing famous actors act, walking across the Millennium Dome, standing in Darwin's study room, seeing original stuff from the Scott expeditions - sometimes travel is interesting.
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