If you fancy visiting a museum devoted to an iconic aircraft manufacturer, then you can find it at the end of a narrow country lane on the edges of the M25 in North London. This is the de Havilland Aircraft Museum and shows off the heritage of one of the UK’s earliest and most successful aircraft builders, but one that was to be doomed by being a bit too innovative a bit too early.
If arriving by bus, a short walk down a country lane takes you past the privately-owned Salisbury Hall, which was once owned by the railway engineer, Sir Nigel Gresley, and it’s claimed that the ducks in the moat inspired his decision to name his steam locomotives after birds. Around the side of the manor house though, following the signs through what looks increasingly like people’s private property, but down at the far end is the museum.
Apart from the entry shop/cafe, there are four large hangers filled with aircraft to look at and go inside, and outside the hangers more aircraft to see.
It’s very much a history of one company type museum, so there are a lot of display boards dotted around recounting the birth of the firm in the 1920s through the heydays of aviation to its eventual demise in the 1960s.
The smaller aircraft are intact, with wings and engines, the larger aircraft are mainly cockpits or the main fuselage, with the wings long since removed. It’s easy to understand why the wings are removed from larger planes (as at many aviation museums), as they take up an awful lot of space, but I miss them, as they are pretty important to the plane’s function and what you’re left with is a metal tube instead.
In the first couple of hangers there’s a lot about the firm’s work during WW2, and specifically the Mosquito, a plane that was unusually for a WW2 plane made from wood instead of scarce aluminium. The de Havilland clearly was able to use its extensive experience in earlier wooden bi-planes to build a WW2 combat aircraft.
The largest item in the hangers though is the ill-fated Comet — the world’s first commercial jet airliner. As a plane, it could have secured the firm’s future but was instead to doom it. The plane was built before people understood how pressurised cabins and square windows were not a friendly combination. The plane crashed three times, leading to a very high profile review that uncovered the then unknown problem of metal fatigue in the sharp corners of the windows. Easy to fix with rounded corners, but by then the plane’s public image had been badly damaged, and sales never recovered.
Boeing later said that they were about to include the same design in their first passenger plane until the Comet tests revealed the problem with the windows, and it’s a fluke of history that Boeing went to great success, while de Havilland ended up being bought by Hawker Siddeley group in 1960, which later merged to form BAE Systems.
But here in the museum, is a rare survivor – one of the Comets with the original square windows still intact. You’re able to go inside the plane, which has been refitted as a passenger plane on one side, and left raw on the other to show off the engineering. Back then, toilets were still split for men or ladies, so there were two large loos at the back of the plane, and a chance to look inside the cockpit with its very 1960s bright red leather chairs for the pilots, and of course, every seat had an ashtray for smokers.
Outside the hangers are more planes, mostly to look at from the outside, or climb up a ladder to look at the pilot’s seat.
Out here though is the last of the de Havilland planes, the BAe.146 built between 1983-92, and going inside it’s as if you’re walking into a modern plane, but with quirks. I was particularly amused by the collection of “boarding music cassette tapes” and the in-car stereo above that played the tapes. As plane manufacturers do anything they can to reduce weight, the idea that there’s a cupboard full of music tapes to play for the few minutes that people are getting on the plane looks like a remarkably expensive luxury that I doubt many people even noticed.
The toilets are much more conventional now, being unisex and tiny, compared to the luxury of the Comet earlier. A teddy bear sits in the cockpit.
Something else out here worth climbing inside purely for the eugh effect is the Heron, a tiny island hopper plane with an aisle between the seats that are barely wide enough to squeeze through, and a very odd-looking egg-shaped interior.
The rest of the museum is dotted around with old bits of this and that, a large collection of aircraft engines, and most unexpectedly, some missiles and a space rocket, the famous Blue Streak.
Overall, although devoted to just one company, the display is varied enough and covers such a long period of aircraft development, from early biplanes to modern passenger jets, that most visitors will find enough here to be interesting.
The museum is open Tues-Sun 10:30am to 5pm, normally closed on Mondays – but open on Bank Holiday Mondays.
Adults: £14 | Concessions: £12 | Children (5-16): £8 | Family £35
Getting to the de Havilland Aircraft Museum
If you drive, it’s easy, as there’s a car park next to the museum.
If you don’t then, then the recommended method is to catch a train to either Potters Bar or St Albans City stations, then the half-hourly 84 bus stops right outside the museum. From there it’s a short walk along the lane to the museum.
Although the museum recommends coming via Potters Bar, and it’s within TfL’s contactless payment zone and therefore convenient to travel to, if you fancy a fuller day out, I’d suggest going via St Albans City, as then you can also take in St Albans Cathedral, the old town and the Roman ruins, and depending on the day you visit, maybe the old railway signal box as well.