Once a month, if you head down a quiet residential street in Watford, you’ll stumble upon a surprisingly large heritage centre devoted to life in 1940s Britain. This is the Forties Experience, and candidly, if you look at their website, you’d expect maybe a few rooms to look at, but don’t be fooled, for this is a large site filling several buildings scattered around the grounds.
It’s in fact a former US military base that was set up Bushey Hall and was there for several decades. It’s now a heritage centre devoted to the late WW2 era, the 1940s, and is a mix of domestic and military heritage. You’ll see several curved tin buildings that are classics of quickly erected military buildings from WW2, of which few survive, and the main one is given over to the domestic life of a 1940s household.
Rooms are not slavish replicas of 1940s rooms, being more displays in suitably decorated rooms of domestic possessions that many people would have owned at the time.
In one corner is an old television in its wood box perilously close to an early top-loading washing machine and a small gas cooker in a floral print room. Although some items are in glass cases, most of the objects are just piled up, almost as in a domestic scene, with board games and record sleeves scattered around the chairs. You can just about imagine a family has just stepped outside for a moment and you’ve walked into the room as they left it.
Recalling the opinions of the time, there are some items on show that we would frown upon today, from the gollywog dolls to the Black & White Minstrels tapes. Although we’re looking at British domestic life, this was a US base, and racial segregation was still enforced here in a way that, to our modest credit, was frowned upon by the British hosts.
In the hallways, plenty of old photos of the base when it was in use fill the walls, along with ephemera, such as the Christmas lunch menu cards offering such treats as celery sticks for starters and turkey in celery dressing for main. It was wartime after all.
Tins of USA ration food look remarkably similar to Tesco Value branding. A pack of US Army breakfast comes with a tin of chopped meat, synthetic lemon juice, instant coffee, biscuits, some chewing gum, and a pack of cigarettes.
If that was all the museum had, it’s worth a visit – but there’s more.
Outside, a group of men in US Army clothing give a talk about a big display of guns, and around the back of some trucks, is another building filled with military equipment. Head down the road, and past the water tower, and Anderson shelter, to find the old schoolroom, and closed as I arrived a bit too early, a WW2 blitz experience building.
Stop off for tea and cake in the 1940s cafe.
Overall, it’s a really enjoyable venue to visit, not polished, rather ramshackle in places, but that’s what makes it enjoyable, it feels loved in a way that museums can sometimes lack with their clinical preservation of objects. Here, the cluttered display is closer to how people actually lived during the war.
With plenty of reenactors wandering around the place, if you squint a bit, you can imagine yourself to be both back in the domestic life of 1940s London and in a US military base based in the UK.
It’s open to the public on the last Sunday of the month, so the next open day is 24th April. Entry is £5 for adults, £3 for children. I spent about two hours here and still didn’t see absolutely everything.
The site isn’t empty for the rest of the month though, as a large building next to the site turned out to be a dormitory and education centre, and schools can bring classes here for the day or spend the night in 1940s land.
The 1940s Experience is about a 15-minute walk from Watford High Street station, or a bit further from Watford Junction in the town centre, and is at the end of Bushey Hall Drive.