Biggin Hill Memorial Museum

Honoring the many and the few

Biggin Hill Memorial Museum It sits low on the ground, a spare, elegant building that celebrates the most inspiring of stories. The new Biggin Hill Memorial Museum fits snuggly into the surrounding landscape enfolding the St George’s Chapel of Remembrance. From this airfield station in Kent, Hawker Hurricanes and Spitfires took to the skies in the dark days of July to October 1940, piloted by young men intent on the defence of the country. 454 of them perished in the furious aerial conflict with German forces in the Battle of Britain.

Now in the new museum, opened in early February 2019, I discover the story of Britain’s most famous fighter station told through the lives of those who served and worked here. It makes for a humbling – but uplifting – experience.  In the softly lit, well laid out rooms the life of Biggin Hill unfolds, from its early days, its daily life, the community around it and now how we remember those who had lived and died here. Voices reach out from the past from video mounted screens and interactive displays. A host of objects set the scene: old flying jackets, uniforms, maps and photos, a Jewish prayer book, a child’s gas mask and box, a cockpit clock from a downed German aircraft, all take me into a busy station where uncertainly and danger were met with amazing courage and dedication.

One of the 'Scramble' and 'Victory' bells which help tell th edramatic story of Biggin Hill I am taken back to the airfield’s beginnings when, in 1917, it was set up to test new developments in fight. Then came World War 2 and the Battle of Britain, Biggin Hill’s defining moment in history. Part of a series of airfields that were to protect the capital it was, said Winston Churchill, ‘the strongest link’. Much focus naturally is on the young fighter pilots who served here and who were `scrambled’ to dash into the skies at often only a few minutes notice and who were famously described by Churchill as ` the few’. On the audio guide featuring Dan Snow, I hear the voices of the late Geoffrey Wellum (the youngest Spitfire pilot to serve at 19 years of age) and pilot Tom Neil telling of their never -to-be-forgotten experiences. 

But this museum tells us too about `the many’ who supported them and served here; the ground crews, the engineers, the tea ladies and civilians from the town. Of the three Military Medals awarded for bravery in the WAAF, three were given to Biggin Hill WAAFs. Sergeant Helen Turner who worked on the switchboard, stayed at her post during heavy bombing raids and won her Military Medal for bravery in 1940. Trixie, a young woman who provided refreshments to those working at the station, was killed during a bombing raid in August 1940. A World War Two flying jacket I read about Lilian, eldest daughter of the Simpson family who lived in Biggin Hill, and who met a Canadian pilot who served at the station who later became a prisoner of war. I read letters they exchanged throughout the war. Older brother Harry Simpson, inspired by the pilots around him at Biggin Hill, joined the RAF at 18 but was lost to his family when his Lancaster failed to return from a mission. 

In the museum’s Nightingale Cafe, I meet Geoff Greensmith who was born nearby and whose father Bill ran the original Nightingale Cafe on the base. The only child allowed into the airfield, he tells how he watched the ground crews attend to the Hurricanes and Spitfires and scavenged for souvenirs from the planes. Far from fear, he often felt only excitement at what was going on around him. 

St George's RAF Chapel of Remembrance at Biggin Hill An inner courtyard between the museum and the Chapel contains a consecrated memorial garden where roses will bloom. Later I walk through a passage with a glass ceiling which connects the museum and Chapel where visitors are invited to look up at the sky, the combat zone where many young men died. The original Chapel was dedicated in 1943, but burnt down in 1946 and a new chapel was built in 1951. Later Geoff explains how while most things were lost in the 1946 fire, the original chapel Bible was much later found to have survived and is on display. 

Now restored to its original design, the Chapel commemorates those of different nationalities who fought here. All 454 names of those who lost their lives are listed behind the altar and gifts from their home countries are on display. With its low ceiling and polished wooden floors, made from the slats of propeller blades, and stained-glass windows honoring the station fighter pilots, the Chapel is a quiet, reflective place. After the Department of Defence stopped using Biggin Hill as an airfield, the future of the Chapel became uncertain. With funding from the National Lottery and the Central Government, the museum project ensured its future. Long in the making, the new museum and restored Chapel now stand together on hallowed ground and a visit makes an absorbing encounter with a pivotal episode in British history. 

Biggin Hill Memorial Museum, Main Road, Biggin Hill, Kent TN16 3EJ.


112 people found this helpful
19258

Share Article:

Diana Bentley

Freelance travel writer & broadcaster

Leave a comment

*

Sign up to our newsletter to receive the latest travel tips on top destinations.

Join the club

Become a member to receive exclusive benefits

Our community is the heart of Silver Travel Advisor, we love nothing more than sharing ideas, inspiration, hints and tips between us.

Most Recent Articles

Geoff Moore joined events across the island to celebrate Liberation Day, one of the most important dates in Guernsey’s calendar…
The Royal Shakespeare Company offers far more than just live theatre as Gillian Thornton found out on a visit to…

Come feel the love on a Princess cruise. You’ll enjoy the MedallionClass experience others simply can’t, and it’s exclusively for everyone. Visit incredible destinations and be involved in the best experiences around each one of them.

Experience more with Princess and connect effortlessly with the world around you, spend time away with loved ones, take a moment for yourself, and fall in love with your holiday of a lifetime, every time.

With over 20 years of experience, Wendy Wu Tours has mastered the art of creating exceptional, fully inclusive tours which showcase the very best of each destination.

Each tour is led by a world-class guide, who will highlight the very best of their homeland, and includes authentic cultural experiences so you are not just seeing the sights, but truly immersing yourself in local life.

Say hello to ease at sea. Ambassador’s purpose is simple: they want to inspire every guest to experience authentic cruising, effortlessly and sustainably. Passionate about protecting our oceans and destinations, their ships comply with the highest industry emission standards and there is no single-use plastic on board.

On your voyage, you will receive the warmest of welcomes from the Ambassador community as you sail upon the friendliest ships afloat.

This is a global co-operative co-owned by local partners using real local experts and guides, which supports local communities, environments and wildlife. It offers travellers quirky places to stay, activity holidays and learning experiences. Not In The Guidebooks gets travellers off the beaten track into local culture with day experiences and longer, immersive adventures.

From wild wellness breaks in Wales to painting in Portugal, sustainable adventures in Mauritius to food safaris in Brazil, this is immersive, exciting travel.

Seabourn’s five intimate ships carry guests to the heart of great cities, exclusive yacht harbours and secluded coves around the world, while two new purpose-built expedition ships will combine exhilarating adventures in remote destinations with the sophisticated amenities of the world’s finest resorts at sea.

From the luxury of all suite accommodations to complimentary fine wines and spirits, and a no tipping policy, Seabourn exemplifies the definition of travelling well.