Sunday, 6 January 2013

Question: What Did You Do In East Lothian Today?

National Museum of Flight, East Fortune

National Mining Museum Scotland, Newtongrange

At this time of year you would expect a family day out in Scotland to require scarves, wellies and gloves but it was so mild today that we could have had a picnic without too much bother. So rather than a frosty walk up Conic Hill or suchlike we decided to head eastwards today to entertain the children. I'm not that old, at 42, but it does seem like everyday things from my youthful years are now appearing as museum pieces and "how we used to live" exhibits. Today we came across loads of examples of this.
Concorde, at The National Museum of Flight
Anyway we decided to head for the National Museum of Flight, at East Fortune in East Lothian. We hadn't been here for over 6 years, which wasn't long after the Concorde had arrived here and you had to book a time for "The Concorde Experience". Today it was a lot quieter and we were able to experience the Concorde at our leisure. Based at East Fortune airfield the museum covers several hangers filled with old aircraft, various Nissen Huts full of artifacts telling the history of the airfield during two World Wars and as a base for airships. Wandering about the airfield I was seeing it through fresh eyes today after my children did a school project recently which involved speaking to my gran about what she did during the war. She joined the WAAF, working on an anti-aircraft gun and her jolly tales, which I'd never heard before, of listening to the shrapnel hitting the roof of the Nissen Hut when she was trying to sleep made me see it today as more than a collection of rusting huts in an old field. I could now picture real people working in places like this.

First stop was Concorde, which is a beautiful piece of engineering, was a commercial aircraft until 12 years ago but is already a museum piece from a bygone age. Wandering through the cramped passenger area it is hard to imagine that this ever appeared luxurious despite the sleek image it had. After a run about some of the planes parked outside and the assault course we headed into the hangers to see the collections of military and commercial aircraft.

One wee exhibit which I liked was the remains of the engine from Rudolf Hess's plane from his crash-landing at Eaglesham (where Whitelee Windfarm is now) before he was imprisoned at Maryhill Barracks. That seems like proper history befitting a museum. The rest of the things here however seemed very recent. It is funny trying to explain the Cold War to my children, I had the same problem when we visited The Secret Bunker. But my wife and I were looking at the fighter planes and Harrier Jump Jets and trying to explain that when we were teenagers these things were flying over our heads every day. This was especially true for my wife living in Fife near Leuchers, or they were scaring the bejesus outta me and anyone else into walking in the Scottish countryside in the 80s as we all prepared for nuclear armageddon.

A Czech MiG jet
I have to admit that despite my peacenik nature, the MiG jet fighter and the Harrier were the coolest exhibits, and it is great that you can get so close up to them and see them so well. The Vulcan bomber sitting outside looks impressive too, but you read that it was previously carrying nuclear warheads and then was active in the Falklands War and you remember what job these things were designed for. It seemed this stuff was all around us when we were younger, but although we have rolling 24 hour news and British soldiers on active service  around the world just now, it somehow has become more abstract and "over there".

The children had a lot of fun in the interactive gallery, which had a lot of imaginative displays which, unusually for places like this, were all working.

I also liked seeing the parachute storeroom which wasn't open last time we were here, as the Singer sewing machine here reminded my wife that her granny spent a lot of time during the war making parachutes for the army. The other thing that caught my eye as being just recent was the Green Goddess fire engine, last seen by me on TV during the firemen's strike in 1979. It looks like some antique thing from ancient history rather than from the days of my youth. So, as a National Museum it did its job, telling the story of our lives and our families.
We had a lot of fun here, and the kids had a great time. We finished our visit off with aeroplane shaped shortbread biscuits in the canteen, then a rummage through the Airfix models in the museum shop (we couldn't find a Messerschmitt to engage in a dogfight with the spitfire hanging from my son's bedroom ceiling).
The Scottish Mining Museum
On the road back to Glasgow we stopped off at The National Mining Museum, Scotland at the site of Lady Victoria Colliery in Newtongrange. Through the conscious efforts of Margaret Thatcher's government this vast industry is now all but obliterated in Scotland. Most people in Scotland who aren't directly related to mining stock will find plenty of miners in their family tree if you dig deep enough. I've found lots of Ayrshire and Fife miners when I looked into my ancestors, with relatives able to recall tales of roof falls, accidents and Bevin Boys. My wife's grandfather spent over 50 years down pits in Fife. Visiting this museum is as close as we can get to the trip down into the Seafield pit he took her dad one day to show him what it was like down there (he hated it). Miners' Galas, coal lorries delivering fuel to our flat in the 70s, the 1984 Miners Strike. It is only there in museums and history books now.
The museum starts you off with 2 floors of exhibits on the history of coal mining in Scotland and the social history of coal miners.
You then start a self-directed guided tour of the pithead, with a wee audio thing to guide you. It has lots of interesting photos and information, but I hate these things where you turn up at a place and stand there ignoring it and stare at a wee photo, I'm quite happy looking these things up later or buying a book to get a bit more context. It just seems to detach you from the place you are in. It also makes it hard for children to absorb. "Shhh, shhhh. Hang on until I hear this....okay it says that we are in.....". Anyway I guess it is optional, so on the whole we did largely opt out, and I see that the tour can be downloaded as an app apparently, although searching the iTunes store today I couldn't find it.
The Winding Engine
At the Pithead you can walk about the massive winding engine, there are waggons of coal at the pithead, but the main shaft is obviously filled in. However there is a recreation of the descent down the pit tunnels to the coalface.
It is respectful to the old industry and interesting and educational but the whole place just feels a bit sterile, on too small a scale to recreate the vast size of these enterprises in their full vigour and the actual physical graft and danger involved.
The board with the miner's tags hung on it was one of the most evocative things there, the way of monitoring who was still to come up from below, but this was hanging about at the back of the video room without any label or information. There are interactive displays and a soft play area (which you have to pay for, which seems a bit mean as otherwise children get in for free). The shop also has a fascinating collection of books ranging from history to archives to personal memoirs of mining in Scotland.
There are other industrial museums across Scotland, the one at Summerlee in Coatbridge is a cracker and Almond Valley in Livingstone is good too. They work best when they tell the story of the people in the industry and you can put yourself in their shoes. To be fair we were rushing through the Mining Museum a bit before it closed, with three children who'd already had a morning of jet fighter planes, so we didn't get to read all the displays. It is a good collection with at times a ghostly absence of miners. A bit like Scotland I suppose.

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