Why is it that we so often miss the opportunities on our doorstep? I worked in and around London for almost a decade, and it’s only now, 15 years after moving back home to the Fens, that I realise what the city has to offer. Maybe that’s why it took so long for me, a self-confessed aeroplane nut, to revisit the Fenland & West Norfolk Aviation Museum, a gem of an attraction located just off the A47 on the outskirts of Wisbech.
The museum sits to the rear of retail units off Lynn Road, the fin of its English Electric Lightning acting as an obvious signpost to something special nestled away behind the garden centre. There can be few sites in the UK, or possibly the world, where you can stop off for compost, cat food or cake, and see a fighter jet built to fly at twice the speed of sound.
The friendly volunteers staffing the museum would, quite correctly, point out that their Lightning is a two-seat trainer, used in its heyday to instruct fledgling fighter pilots. But the big jet, alongside other complete aircraft on display, represents only a small part of the story this unusual museum tells.
A treasure house for wartime aviation enthusiasts
It is primarily a collection of artefacts, mostly recovered from aircraft crash sites within a 25-mile radius of Wisbech. The density of RAF and US Army Air Force bases in East Anglia during World War II, and in the decades following, means that a large number of exciting aeroplanes are represented. Among them, relics from the famous Lancaster, Hurricane and Spitfire will thrill most visitors. But enthusiasts will delight at parts recovered from the B-29 bomber and C-141 transport.
The museum displays a mix of restored and as-found items, providing a fascinating glimpse into the process of aviation archaeology. But the hook is in the volunteers’ efforts to tell the stories behind the collection. Where possible, archive photographs, memorabilia and careful research bring the exhibits to life. The result is an absorbing and often moving exploration of the cost of peace, paid in lives over our region.
Not just wartime memories
But there is more to the Fenland & West Norfolk Aviation Museum than wartime memories. It also holds an eclectic collection of aviation ephemera, including a Boeing 747 cockpit trainer, a Red Arrows flying suit, and a piece of a Zeppelin airship. Visitors are encouraged to touch several exhibits, including a jet engine. Sections are cut away to show the complexity of parts within, and it’s difficult to imagine how anyone, of any age, with an interest in the key science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects could not be enthralled.
But what of the future?
In recent months, the volunteers have opened the facility as much as Covid-19 restrictions have allowed. However, they go into their closed winter season under a cloud. The museum has all the funding and maintenance headaches of any similar attraction, but with added uncertainty over its longer-term future.
In 2023, the lease on the museum site expires. Before then, the organisation needs to decide whether it buys the land and remains close to Wisbech, or bears the costs of finding, moving to and leasing, or buying, new infrastructure. Ideally, the volunteers would like to stay. But any successful outcome requires an injection of funding well beyond the museum’s modest reserve.
So here’s the crunch. There is an aviation museum of national – even international – significance, right here in the heart of the Fens. It seems so unlikely it could be made up, but it’s true. Without local support from visitors and businesses, plus its own efforts to raise money through national schemes, in just three years the Fenland & West Norfolk Aviation Museum could be lost to the area forever. That would be a tragedy. So please, when it reopens to visitors at Easter 2021, go visit, show your support, and surprise yourself with what it has to offer.
In the meantime, if you feel you can help financially or in any other practical way, please contact Peter Munro on firstname.lastname@example.org
WORDS by Paul Eden
Click here to read another article about other local museums