My Small Son recently went on a road trip of an educational kind – to Dorset and Somerset on the trail of two military museums we’ve been wanting to visit for some time.
On a Friday afternoon we headed along the coast to Dorchester in Dorset where we stayed as guests of Premier Inn in the chain’s new hotel in the Brewery Square development. Last time I visited Dorchester, a few years back, the brewery site was a run-down yet majestic bit of Victorian industrial legacy. I feared it might be bulldozed, but was delighted to find that it has been kept intact and used wisely, as a site for leisure and housing. The old buildings now sit next to modern flats and restaurants and fortunately their scale means the modern buildings don’t overshadow then.
We’ve only stayed at a Premier Inn once before and had been very pleasantly surprised. Owners Whitbread really seem to have nailed the budget hotel end of the market. Very speedy check-in (with machines that give you your room key) and clean, crisp and quiet rooms – basically all you need for a quick stopover. The in-house restaurant has a simple menu which will suit most (with plenty of options for children) and the breakfast is both reasonably priced and the quality high (even down to same organic yoghurts we have at home). The staff at the hotel couldn’t have been friendlier and with a car park underneath the building, it couldn’t have been more convenient. We’ll definitely be back – in fact we’ve already booked!
After a hearty breakfast on the Saturday morning we packed up and headed off to our first museum – the Tank Museum at Bovington, which neither of us had been to before – and it didn’t disappoint. The vast museum is home to more than 300 vehicles ranging from Little Willie, the first ever tank to the dreaded German Second War War Tiger tank to the powerful modern Challenger 2.
The museum has six large halls including one with a superb recreation of First World War trenches in 1916, which felt really evocative and poignant. Obviously there are a lot of tanks at Bovington but the museum does a fine job of telling the stories and sharing the experiences of the men who fought and died in these claustrophobic metal boxes. There’s also a clever recreation of a tank factory and the story of tanks in warfare is brought right up to date with a large recreation of a base in Helmand Province in Afghanistan.
There is lots to see so its worth allowing the best part of a day for your visit and we were at the museum until near to closing time – but before we left we went outside and went for a spin around the arena on a modern tracked vehicle which was bouncy, noisy and great fun. Afterwards we headed off on a 40 minute drive to the next stop on our Museum Road Trip – Yeovil in Somerset (and a stay at another Premier Inn).
Every time we go to the West Country via the infamous A303 I make a mental note to visit the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton – and today, finally, was that day. And wow – what a great museum. I was born in Portsmouth and still live quite close so I’ve been to the other National Museums of the Royal Navy (NMRN Portsmouth and Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, Royal Navy Submarine Museum and the Royal Marines Museum). The Fleet Air Arm Museum is the fourth and final – and was well worth the trip.
Like the tank museum, it’s a vast site with four large exhibition halls, more than ninety aircraft and thousands of artefacts. It is Europe’s largest naval aviation museum and tells the story of naval aviation from its origins at the beginning of the 20 century to the modern day. The highlight for us was a superb recreation of an aircraft carrier which enthralled my son and me. In fact. I thought was one of the best museum exhibitions I’d ever seen, and it certainty deserves its award-winning status.
To reach it you board a helicopter and are then “flown” out to the flight desk where you are able to walk amongst aircraft and then watch jets take off and land. You then go on a highly realistic tour below decks and see how the ship operates. Other particular favourite exhibits for us were going on the first British built Concorde, sitting inside a jet and watching a film about the helicopter rescues during a huge flood in Boscastle in Cornwall, where we had stayed recently.
Like the Tank Museum, the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton is well worth a visit. It’s innovative, interesting and well thought out. Both museums are highly recommended.
Notes: Our stay at Premier Inn, Dorchester was courtesy of the hotel and our entrance to the Fleet Air Arm Museum was courtesy of the museum