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Diary of a trip to Europe and the UK, Part 3

Seeing the best automotive and technical sights

by Julian Edgar

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At a glance...

  • Disliking Italy so much we left early
  • The impressive Colosseum and Pantheon in Rome
  • Exhilarating hovercraft to the Isle of Wight
  • Interesting D-day museum in Portsmouth
  • A grand structure: a Victorian-era full-size fort
  • Intriguing Solent on the Sky air museum
  • Superb National Motor Museum at Beaulieu
  • Fascinating Fleet Air Museum at Yeovil
  • Truly excellent Haynes National Motor Museum at Sparkford
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So today we took the train from beautiful Lucerne, in Switzerland, to Rome, in Italy.

The day started off on a fun note, as my wife Georgina in the Lucerne hotel room read from the web all the (real) horror stories she could find of criminal behaviour in Italy. Of bags being snatched, of pairs of thieves working in concert to distract unsuspecting and naive tourists of their laptops, of their wallets, of their purses. So, choosing to cover our backpacks for the first time in their rain-covers (one more layer against thieves), and having impressed on 11-year-old son Alexander that his casual approach wouldn’t cut it in the land of opportunistic crooks, we set off.

The first train was from Lucerne to Milan. Despite having the shape and power of a high-speed train, the trip was actually rather slow. However, the scenery was quite extraordinary – more of that we’d seen from the ferries on Lake Lucerne, but this time covering perhaps 300 kilometres, rather than 50. This is regarded as one of the greatest train trips in the world – and I agree.

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But travelling into Italy via the Swiss border, Italy looks pretty much like a dump.

Switzerland is almost more German than Germany – neat, wealthy, precise, clean and with excellent infrastructure. But cross the border into Italy, and things are slovenly, run-down, graffiti’d, derelict. Even looking at only the rail infrastructure, the difference is obvious.

Well, that was how it was at the border.

At Milan, from the rail passenger seat, the view out of the window got worse – more of the same, this time on a city scale.

Anyway, we hopped off at Milan, took all of our carefully thought-through security precautions, then got on the train to Rome.

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And what a train! 299 km/h was the highest I saw on the in-cabin display; it just ripped through the countryside on what was obviously a purpose-built track.

That’s the good news. The bad is that at speed, it was quite noisy, with a strong vertical ride oscillation (I measured it with my iPhone at 3Hz). But the worse thing was the number of tunnels. I kid you not, there must have been literally 100 tunnels on this line. So? Well, at every one of them, the air pressure in the train abruptly changed, causing ear popping. Try popping you ears 100 times in three hours and you to will end up with the headaches Georgina and I had. (Alexander appeared to be less affected.)

Anyway, we got to Rome and exited the train, preparing to walk the five or six hundred metres to the hotel Georgina had selected.

Gawd, what a street!

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The only comparison we can draw is with the centre of Detroit – you know, the place in ruins largely taken over by the lawless - that we visited last year. This is the first time in my life I have paused to let other pedestrians overtake me, because I was worried that they were positioning themselves suspiciously close behind. Graffiti absolutely everywhere (including on vehicles), groups of men drinking in doorways, run-down buildings, an air of exuberant and cavalier lawlessness.

Now to be fair to the citizens of this part of Rome, it may have all been my imagination. But I don’t think so: when we got to the expensive hotel, the door had a sign on it: ‘No Entry’. We went through it anyway; I’d suggest the sign was placed there simply to dissuade derelicts from the back street entering the hotel. (Not that that helped: in the morning, we exited from the front entrance and there were again undesirables everywhere.)

[And who were all these people? In the main they appeared to be recently arrived economic migrants, choosing to live near the central railway station. It was not a safe atmosphere at all.]

And the Roman-era buildings, the reason that we went to Rome in the first place?

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The Colosseum was just extraordinarily mighty, far higher than I’d pictured it and with wonderfully intricate structural engineering. (However, that said, the incomplete Nazi Congress Hall in Nuremberg, Germany, is a much larger and in many ways, more impressive structure modelled along the same lines. I know the Congress hall hasn’t stood for 2000 years, but it’s intriguing how the Nazi version is often sneered at for its deluded grandeur, yet the Roman one is held in awe… despite much the same deluded grandeur.)

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The Pantheon, with its extraordinary light concrete dome of such huge proportions, was quite awe-inspiring – one of the most impressive buildings I’ve ever been in.

But I must be honest – we hated Italy so much that we chose to cut short the itinerary and leave. That very day.

An Air Italia flight to London, an airport hotel room that night, then a Jaguar XF diesel hired for 18 days of travel around the UK. That quick, that easy. We honestly felt that we’d just escaped….

First up, we drove down to Portsmouth and stayed there two nights.

The first day we went to the D-Day museum. (The D-Day invasion fleet left from Portsmouth.) The museum is being redeveloped, but even as it is, it matches the typical British museum characteristics of being reasonably priced, and historically and intellectually sound. It made for a pleasant and interesting hour or so.

The next day we did something that will stick on our memories forever.

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When we were last in this area of the UK, we went to the hovercraft museum – a fantastic experience, especially when walking all over the huge SR-N4 cross-channel hovercraft (that unfortunately no longer run). But there is a hovercraft that is still in use – the hovercraft that ferries passengers to and from the Isle of Wight. This large island is just offshore and there is a variety of ferries in operation – some from Southampton as well as Portsmouth.

But there is none as fast as the hovercraft of Hovertravel.

Hovertravel offer the oldest continuously operating commercial hovercraft service in the world – and, as far as I know, the only remaining commercial ferry service anywhere that still uses hovercraft.

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So we paid our (expensive) tickets and sat among the bored-looking commuters in the waiting room; we were the only ones exclaiming as the hovercraft barrelled across The Solent towards us, and the only ones taking photographs at every point of the journey!

And what was it like?

Fantastic stuff. The feeling as the skirt inflates and the hovercraft starts to fly is amazing, but it is beaten by the yawing slide as the craft pivots down the ramp and onto the ocean. Alexander was amazed that there was no bump as the hovercraft transitioned from sea to land – the only way that you could tell that the transition had happened was that the floor became level.

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The hovercraft quickly wound up to its 60 km/h cruising speed and, just 10 minutes later, we were at the Isle of Wight.

Ryde on the Isle of Wight looked like a lovely, sleepy little village, on this cool winter day completely devoid of the tourists it must service in summer. However, we stayed only 30 minutes and then caught the hovercraft home – but looking at Ryde, and reading about the rest of the island, it all looked a really nice place to come for a relaxing week. There is a train service around the island, and plenty of double decker buses. (And an interesting engineering heritage too: those Saunders-Roe SR-N4 hovercraft I mentioned earlier were built here, along with a string of flying boats.)

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In the afternoon we visited Fort Nelson, located in the hills behind Portsmouth. The attraction was two-fold – the Victorian-era fort is a massive, restored structure, and it’s also home to the Royal Armouries national collection of artillery, ‘The Big Guns’ as they call them. Entry is free!

The fort was an extraordinary place to wander around, with underground passages, thick walls, mounted cannon… just all quite amazing. So why was it built? The museum has on its website a simple and clear explanation:

Fort Nelson is part of a massive ring of brick, masonry and earth forts, and was built to provide the fire power to deter an enemy attack on Portsmouth from inland.

Portsmouth was Britain’s premier naval dockyard, building and maintaining warships that were vital to the defence of Britain and her growing empire. Portsmouth faced the new French dockyard at Cherbourg, only a short 130 km (81 mile) journey for new steam-powered warships.

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The threat was not simply a direct naval assault. It was feared that a French invasion force might land elsewhere, occupy Portsdown Hill, and fire their new long-range guns to attack Portsmouth below from its landward side.

Never used against invaders, Fort Nelson cost a fortune to build.

We found the fort – and the huge range of big guns within it – a place that worked on lots of levels. You could admire the military engineering, the architecture, the history, the artillery pieces on display, the ambience, or the industrial archaeology…

From Portsmouth, it was off in the direction of Southampton.

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Our first stop was at the Solent on the Sky museum. This area has a very strong aeronautical history, and the Solent Sky museum concentrates on the histories of local companies. They include Airspeed (interesting, the company my favourite novelist, engineer Nevil Shute helped start) and, much more famously, Supermarine – the company behind the Spitfire. There’s a Spitfire on display, and a Schneider Trophy aircraft – the fastest aircraft in the world in 1929… and really impressive. (In the metal it looks like a 1940s seaplane, not something from the late 1920s.)

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There’s also a 1943 Short Sandringham flying boat that spent part of its life as an Australian Ansett aircraft on the Lord Howe run. You’re allowed inside this aircraft – from the pilot’s cockpit (reached by a ladder) to the multi-level passenger accommodation. Interesting, I found the large aircraft rather claustrophobic, but it’s certainly nothing like any other 1940s aircraft I have been inside.

This is a volunteer-run museum, obviously chronically short on space - and we found the older male guides rather self-indulgently meandering in their spiels. But still, well-priced and interesting.

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Next we headed for the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. We’ve been here before, and unfortunately, last time I was jetlagged – and this time, I had a flu bug! I think the museum is a bit overpriced (they try to cover that by saying the tickets encompass lots of attractions – but most of the other attractions would be of no interest to car enthusiasts, and vice versa, so it’s all a bit ingenuous) but it still has a fabulous range of cars. The Land Speed Record cars are particularly impressive.

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Next up was the Fleet Air Museum at Yeovil. This was an embarrassingly random addition: we literally saw the signs for the museum only as we headed to a bed and breakfast, then looked it up online. When I saw it had Concorde #2 in it, and a host of other aircraft, we added it to the (next day’s) itinerary.

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It was really good. They had an extraordinary rescue helicopter that we pored over; we were given a really insightful tour of a one-person rescue dinghy; and the animated tour of a British aircraft carrier (they have real bits and pieces of one linked with very effective video and lights) was educative.

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(Incidentally, this museum draws the contrast wonderfully between the US approach to animation and child entertainment in technical museums – and the UK approach. The UK approach is absolutely fine; the US approach is Mickey Mouse, dumbed-down rubbish. However, there is one parallel that is less favourable: the British technology museums are becoming increasingly as jingoistic as the US museums. The Beaulieu museum trumpeted British Land Speed Record cars in a way that became tiresome, and the Fleet Air Museum glorification of the Falklands conflict grated.)

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Next up was an automotive museum that was always on the itinerary – the Haynes International Motor Museum. I’d not heard of this one until I did the research for this trip… but it’s a museum that should be on every automotive enthusiast’s must-visit list.

It’s absolutely outstanding.

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There’s a wonderful array of cars – everything from the cars that made Britain in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (think: Ford Cortina, Morris Minor, Mini, Jaguar and Bentley) to exotics (Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, Lotus) to intriguing (Cord four-door, Stanley Steamer). There’s also some really great displays of automotive memorabilia – electronic engine analysers (loved the very early ‘scopes), service tools (that you could handle) and even automotive arcade games that dated back to the 1930s (that you could play).

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I’ve read some negative reviews of the Haynes museum on-line. I think that those people are nuts – this is, admission price for price and car for car, one of the best automotive museums in the world.

Next: we’re off to Pendine Sands in Wales - we’ve booked three days in a beachside apartment. Pendine Sands is where some of the most extraordinary Land Speed Record of the 1920s were set… but it also looks like a lovely, empty – perhaps desolate – spot where we can chill for three days.






Colosseum and Pantheon

Quite extraordinary constructions – but to best appreciate them, do some research first on how they were built and how old they are! 4 hours.


Hovercraft to the Isle of Wight

Leaves from Portsmouth

Experience one of the very few transport technologies invented in the 20th century! 20 minutes – 10 there, and 10 back. Expensive.


D-day museum


Solid museum covering one of modern history’s most significant events. 1 hour.


Fort Nelson


A Victorian-era full-size fort. Excellent display also of big guns. Free! 2 hours.


Solent on the Sky air museum


Rather cramped but excellent and significant aircraft on display. 1 hour.


National Motor Museum


Outstanding collection of cars, especially Land Speed Record and motorsport machines. Expensive admission. 4 hours.


Fleet Air Museum


High quality aviation museum. Unexpectedly good aircraft carrier experience. 2-3 hours.


Haynes National Motor Museum


Really outstanding collection of a huge number of cars. Much under-rated. 2-3 hours – perhaps more if you want to photograph lots of details.


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