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A world of wonders
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AS the huge metal doors scrape slowly open I cannot resist summoning that supreme moment from the annals of archaeology when Egyptologist Howard Carter – having been asked whether he can see anything – utters three immortal words: “Yes, wonderful things.”
Not for one second am I equating the contents of a string of former World War Two RAF hangars dotted along the hills overlooking Swindon with the goodies contained within the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings.
But seeing all of this stuff – forgotten treasures of science and industry piled in a seemingly haphazard fashion, almost one on top of the other – graphically reminds me of those first magical glimpses 91 years ago into the chaotically stacked mausoleum of King Tut.
It is a privilege to be granted access to some of the lesser known hangars at the Wroughton Science Museum, the ones the public never get the chance to browse around, which for several decades serve as storage space for an ever-growing national collection.
I have been here well over a dozen times during the past 30 years and the complex never ceases to amaze, delight and set me to thinking: “Why can’t everyone come and gawp at all these weird, wacky, wonderful curios?”
Eight cavernous structures bulge with a sprawling and unlikely array of contraptions, mostly from the industrial age, ranging from ground-breaking mechanical marvels – such as a fleet of pioneering aircraft – to an assortment of laughable oddities and heroic failures.
Take the Roulette Sociable: a new-fangled bicycle that enables two riders to sit side-by-side and share the steering and pedalling… at the same time!
A recipe for calamity, you would think. You would be right. The Roulette Sociable, with its Pythonesque twin handlebars, does not take late-Victorian Society by storm and its producers go bust.
If Swindon is a town built on steam then what’s wrong with a steam-powered motorbike?
Nothing, except that its preposterous “tubular flash boiler” makes this conveyance far too cumbersome for the average person to convey… at least, not without looking a complete chump.
Both are ingenious gadgets from a lost era as well as enduring testaments to the crushed hopes of their long dead inventors.
This mothballed accumulation of 18,000 objects showcases the genius, imagination and an eccentricity bordering on insanity of countless British inventors, engineers and innovators down the centuries.
However, the Big Object Store at the Wroughton Science Museum is just one aspect of a remarkable site which, if the owners have their way, will soon enter a new phase by accommodating a 160,000 solar panel power station.
It is a controversial proposal – hotly opposed by some Wroughton people – but one which prompts the question: Why does a remote swathe of farmland close to Britain’s oldest pathway, the 5,000 year-old Ridgeway, have such an interesting and varied history stretching back 70 years?
It is all Adolf Hitler’s fault.
For as long as anyone can remember this northern edge of the Marlborough Downs served as farmland and latterly as the gallops for a string of Grand National, Epsom Derby and Cheltenham Gold Cup winning trainers.
But as the storm clouds of war gather the Air Ministry brushes aside protests from the National Farmers Union to compulsory acquire almost 1,000 acres of prime corn-growing land.
Work begins in May, 1939, on an aerodrome that includes dozens of hangars, some camouflaged with turfed roofs. Over the ensuing five years nearly 10,000 aircraft are affixed with guns at RAF Wroughton before flying off to war.
Local plane spotters are on cloud nine as 62 varieties – Spitfires, Hurricanes, Blenheims, US-built Tomahawks, Mohawks etc – fill the skies.
Some 700 civilians speedily arm aircraft to meet the spiralling demands of war, including – the ultimate rush job, this – the Battle of Britain. As D-Day approaches Horsa Gliders are assembled, Ikea-like, by an army of local men and women.
Several pilots sadly lose their lives as air traffic pours in and out of the hill-top airfield.
Aeronautical operations continue after the war but gradually fizzle out. What to do with such a site? As it happens, the Science Museum is amassing, almost by default an immense collection large, unwieldy exhibits.
Bygone buses, vintage tractors, superannuated space junk, a fleet of antiquated aircraft, all manner of obsolete but historically relevant objects are scattered across the land. A central storage depot is required and in 1979 a 550-acre chunk of the former RAF Wroughton – with its vacant concrete or steel hangars that once housed thumping great Lancaster Bombers – gets the job.
Articulated trucks laden with often heavyweight antiquities from lost eras wend their way onto the downs, 650ft above sea level, to deposit what gradually becomes an Aladdin’s Cave of forgotten relics.
The first arrival is a 1936 Douglas DC-3 aircraft. The oldest? A 16th century medicinal cauldron.
Joining seven 1940s hangars, Europe’s most advanced “research store” is opened in 1992 to accommodate the more sensitive treasures.
Remember the final scene in the first Indiana Jones film when the Ark of the Covenant is wheeled into a vast warehouse stuffed to the gills with mysterious objects. It is just like that.
Archaic implements of all shapes and sizes are squeezed into the storage depots.
Some, such as the first computers and space-bound rockets, were once at the cutting edge of technology. Others, like the 1904 Krieger Electric Car, which sits next to its bulky battery charger, never got going.
Wandering around the complex, it is impossible not to bump into something intriguingly unidentifiable.
I’m scratching my head. “What’s that,” I ask a curator. It is a 1920s dominoes-making machine, of course. And this? Clearly, it is John English’s 1850 tide-recording gauge.
At least that looks familiar. It is the world’s oldest surviving steam loco, the Puffing Billy. This year marks its 200th birthday.
Over there is the Blue Steel missile, Britain’s first nuke. And that gigantic thing? Why it is Fleet Street’s last printing press: 32ft tall, 34ft long and 13ft wide.
But don’t worry. No-one is going to nick this baby for scrap. It weighs 1,409 tonnes!
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