Reg man bested in geek-to-geek combat - in World War 3 nerve centre
Dom Connor and the cool Cold Warriors
Geek's Guide to Britain During the Cold War, Neatishead in Norfolk was theoretically the worst place in the UK to live: the nearby RAF base would be target Number One if the Russians nuked us.
This was brought home to me in a guided tour by a retired officer, whose old job was to run Blighty’s air defence. Standing in the 1980s-era Cold War control room it was genuinely moving to hear how, in drills for World War Three, the countdown clock would start ticking down to the time when Soviet missiles would detonate over the UK and the order would come for everything that could fly to take off and try to ride out the storm.
This wasn’t a show put on for a visiting journo; what has become the Air Defence Radar Museum (ADRM) is run by the people who really did this stuff when it was an operational centre of the nation's air defence.
When the RAF left Neatishead to a location that Whitehall considered even more expendable, the top brass just turned out just the lights and left, so now you can tour something that was once about the most secret place in Britain.
Unlike the posh museums, the ADRM lets you sit down and poke at real equipment that once (hopefully) showed what the enemy was up to and could dispatch missiles and aircraft for their fiery demise.
While strolling around the museum, I’d become a little delocalised but I was pretty sure we hadn’t gone underground to a nuclear bunker. There was a bunker, but someone broke it; an irked airman had started a fire in 1966 and, being underground where fire fighting is not fun, it was totally wrecked.
The base’s firemen were unable to extinguish the blaze, and their civvy colleagues were summoned. Three perished and the man responsible got jail time.
The cheapest option, therefore, was to set up a control centre with roughly the same survivability characteristics as my shed. So it turns out that for years we were defended from - basically - a shed, but to be fair it’s the coolest shed you’ll ever be allowed into without having to dodge armed guards.
Radar’s finest hour was during the Second World War when RAF Neatishead operated mobile and static units against the jerries. The base had one of the first operational 1938 Chain Home Radar systems and a Battle of Britain ops room with the original Biggin Hill scoreboard.
The 1942 room covers the Night Blitz and there is a mockup of the complex process of tracking enemy bombers and ensuring that harm came to them. As in the Cold War room, there are proper experts on this stuff to explain it all and very realistic it is too, except that - apparently - all that stood between the Nazis and our green and pleasant land were a bunch of mannequins sporting dodgy hairdos.
There is a tracking demo, where you get to understand just how tough it was to bring together up and down with left to right scans in three dimensions without a computer to do the heavy lifting in a time when the blips were coming to kill you.
Ninety minutes of proper old nation-defending tech
As well as all that, there’s technical gear from RAF Fylingdales including a bit of one of the infamous radar golfball shields. Actually, Neatishead has “acquired” lots of bits over the years.
These include beautifully intricate electronic valves, the cockpit of a Jaguar ground-attack craft, an (allegedly) disarmed Bristol Bloodhound surface-to-air missile, original magnetrons, helmets, and what is frankly an apparently random selection of aerospace relics, mostly well labelled. My kids were particularly impressed by the guy showing in real-time the maelstrom that is the air traffic over the UK and in particular how a chunk of it is stacked over our house.
Here’s the big question: Will you enjoy the museum?
Not if you just turn up, no. Because it’s run by enthusiasts it is not open every day so you must check the website first. I’m a serious geek and it’s not unknown when I wander round museums for me to “acquire” other visitors and lead them round explaining (sometimes even correctly) the exhibits rather better the real staff.
But that didn’t happen here. I was utterly outclassed by more experts than one is ever likely to meet at the Science Museum. You will learn interesting stuff, if you like the history of tech and war. Unlike the posh museums where they drone on about “how ordinary people in the 1930s felt about Bakelite”, the ADRM is about technology for and by the people who made the damned stuff work.
Britain's Hawker Hurricanes guided by ground radar bases (Photo by Lt L. C. Priest)
The optional tour is about 90 minutes and I’d say there’s at least an extra half hour’s fun to be had talking to the staff about the exhibits. Unless you know or care more about radar than me, then it’s not rational to go solo: you will need this stuff explained to you.
I personally despise the way so many museums have leased their catering to outfits who offer overpriced pseudo-Mediterranean fare. The ADRM does sandwiches, optionally toasted, soup and other simple grub. It's not bad value, given that the only other food for miles requires you to hunt it down; although as everything is made individually by a nice lady it isn’t exactly fast food.
There is, of course, a small gift shop that won’t rip you off with its stock of badges, books and so on. Unlike a depressingly growing set of museums (I shall not name the one in which I was ordered to delete a photo of my son sitting in a chair) this place doesn’t indulge in copyright fascism. You can take all the photos you want.
My eight- and 11-year-old boys really enjoyed it: they’re a bit more geeky than the average lad, but you’re a Reg reader, so I guess yours may be the same. That said, eight is likely to be the lower age bound for the museum being able to hold their attention for the full stay.
I have not ever visited any museum where my kids got the chance to press so many buttons and that alone justified it for them. My Reassuringly Expensive Lawyer™ wife got a lot out of it as well, but watching me be out-geeked was the highlight for her. Apparently. ®
A149 from Great Yarmouth or A1151 from Norwich, then A1062 to just outside Horning
£6 for grownups, £5 for concessions and £2 for 7- to 12-year-olds