Monday, August 26, 2013

A wheely good time - feature on Beaulieu National Motor Museum, House and Garden

BACK in the 1990s, Beaulieu National Motor Museum, House and Garden promoted itself in a television advert with the jingle “You’ll have a Beaulieu-full day at Beaulieu". The jingle may have been long discarded (possibly because it was the clunkiest play on words ever to be used in an advertising campaign), but Beaulieu itself is still going strong, having been voted VisitEngland’s Best Large Visitor Attraction for 2013.

It may be a bold claim for an attraction to claim that it has “lots for everyone to enjoy”; but Beaulieu comes nearer than most in fulfilling such a promise; with the ruins of 13th century Beaulieu Abbey, Palace House, the ancestral home of the Montagu family since 1538, and its stunning grounds, including the well-tended Victorian flower and kitchen gardens.

Such tranquil surroundings may seen like a rather incongruous setting for a museum dedicated to cars and automobilia, but the founding of the National Motor Museum was no cynical tourist ploy; the current Lord Montagu started his collection in 1952 as a tribute to his father, a motoring pioneer as far back as the 1890s.

Despite the appeal of these historical attractions - on our visit to Beaulieu last month, we got no nearer to the house, abbey and gardens than via an aerial view from the mile-long monorail that circuits the site. We did go on it twice though, to get a good look. Not through laziness though - there was simply so much to be seen in the motor museum itself, and the adjacent World of Top Gear display. We even got a bird’s eye view of the exhibitions from the monorail, as during its journey it passes through the roof area of the museum, giving an unusual perspective on the vehicles on display, some of which are staged, staggered or suspended to make the most of space and viewpoints.

In addition, the weekend we visited coincided with the annual Beaulieu Custom & Hot Rod Festival, meaning that there were plenty of sleek cars, vans and bikes bedecked with shimmering chrome, in the event area next to the museum. Pleasingly, despite the increased visitor numbers - which we were warned about when we booked - everything was well organised, with no enormous queues or difficulty viewing the permanent exhibits, with the custom car interlopers simply adding to the atmosphere. The free fairground dodgems were most welcome as well.

And so into the museum itself; a quite breathtaking journey through the history of motoring, with more than 250 vehicles on show, from the earliest days of motoring (in stunning conserved condition) and family cars of the early 20th century, through to classic cars of the 70s and 80s, historic and modern racing, F1 and rally cars, and world land speed record breakers, including Donald Campbell’s Bluebird. I couldn’t help thinking of Matthew Crawley’s tragic final moment in Downton Abbey while looking at some of the beautifully sleek but not particularly safety-conscious early open-topped Rolls Royces and Bentleys. A joy to drive, I’m sure, but where were the seatbelts?

The famous “Outspan Orange” car (built on a Mini chassis in the early 1970s) had a certain ap-peel (gettit?) for young Sophie, while I was particularly drawn to the London Routemaster bus, and had a go at jumping on and swinging around its pole - with slightly less glamourous results than I had pictured in my head. More successful as a photo opportunity was an Edwardian car supplied with appropriate motoring costumes, and Sophie and I had great fun transforming ourselves into ladies from 100 years ago - while George refused steadfastly to even don a flat cap for the photo, and Bill kept well out of the way.

Opened last year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of James Bond films, the museum’s current flagship exhibition is Bond In Motion, showcasing 50 iconic Bond cars, boats, motorbikes, tow-sleds and jets, including the 1937 Phantom III Rolls-Royce from Goldfinger, the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldeneye, the “Little Nellie” autogyro from You Only Live Twice, and the Bede Acrostar jet flown in Octopussy.

Another separate exhibition area of Screen Cars features Del Boy’s iconic Reliant Regal from Only Fools and Horses, Mr Bean’s green mini, and the flying Ford Anglia from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. My favourite of all, taking pride of place in the main museum, was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - sadly, like many of the exhibits, for understandable reasons, not to be clambered upon. How I would have loved to climb into Chitty and go for an arial cruise above Beaulieu’s stunning grounds. What do you mean that it doesn’t really fly?

None of us are avid Top Gear fans, but the World of Top Gear was great fun, featuring some of the BBC television show’s more outlandish stars (I’m talking about the cars, not Jeremy Clarkson), centred around the Top Gear Enormodrome, which recreates the feel of the Top Gear studio, featuring a specially-made film made at the programme’s production office, with classic action clips featuring some of the outlandish vehicles on display. George was particularly impressed with the MG Limo bowling alley, although he did question the practicalities of using it while in motion.

We spotted the cobbled-together motorhomes, the “budget Bond” submarine cars, Ann Hathaway’s Cottage (an interior bedecked with flagstones and a woodburner), homemade police vehicles, and the double decker cars - not one of which looked at all roadworthy. If you spot any of these vehicles on the road, overtake carefully - or, as a friend once did while passing the Top Gear motorhomes driven by the presenters, film them and post to Youtube, resulting in a viral clip which was then picked up by the BBC as the trailer for the series, netting him a life-changing £400.

As we never made it into Palace House, we didn’t get the opportunity to enjoy some of Beaulieu’s current non-motoring exhibitions, including Royal Pageant, a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation, exploring the links between Beaulieu and the monarchy; and The Secret Army, telling the story of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) which trained secret agents at the Beaulieu “Finishing School” on the estate during the Second World War, before they were sent to occupied Europe to work with the Resistance, many never to return. A historical link that James Bond himself would be proud of.

With the school holidays upon us, Beaulieu is revving up for an influx of summer visitors by stepping attractions up a gear with living history characters giving an insight into Victorian life at Palace House and in the 1870s kitchen garden, falconry and Cisternian monks in the Abbey Cloisters, a go-kart track, tours on the open-topped replica 1912 London bus, and creative activities in the museum with a caravan theme. See - what did I tell you? Something for everyone.

Check the website for details and entry prices at

  • First published in Out & About magazine, July 2013

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