Brooklands Museum offers a cornucopia of vehicular delights guaranteed to enthral both young children and teachers alike, as Jerome Monahan reports
Those running Formula 1 might find it timely to visit the site of the first purpose-built motor-racing track in the world, as they attempt to inject more excitement into the sport. Brooklands, near Weybridge in Surrey, was the birthplace of both British car racing and aviation. In its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, it was the site of much derring-do. Drivers hurtled around its steeply banked corners in Bentleys and Bugattis risking life and limb, their split-second decisions spelling the difference between victory or ending up wrapped around a tree.
Today, Brooklands is a museum, home to a formidable collection of bicycles, motorbikes, cars and aeroplanes, and with a rapidly expanding education programme. "We welcome about 7,000 pupils a year, catering to all ages, although the majority of visits we receive are from primary schools," says education manager Valerie Mills.
Oatlands Infants School has made Brooklands one of its key out-of-school destinations in recent years, and despite freezing conditions, the group of 60 Year 1 pupils I accompanied were enthralled throughout their five-hour visit, due to a combination of the variety of activities on offer and the enthusiasm of the volunteer guides. It was impressive how at every stage of the tour exhibits were turned into potential problem-solving tasks, testing the children's observation and deductive skills and touching off various discussions.
The Club House ladies' reading room and the clerk of the course's office provided perfect opportunities to identify objects from the past and conjecture on their use. To Oatlands' five and six-year-olds, ancient typewriters, wind-up gramophones and bowler hats were exotic and puzzling objects. Elsewhere, the odd placing of the steering wheel in the 1900 Peugeot (for a true back-seat driver) was explored, while in another area pupils followed the development of the bicycle from mid 19th-century boneshaker to Raleigh Choppers.
The majority of the transport collection is housed in separate sheds and workshops, lending an extra sense of discovery to the day. Many of the buildings are of historic importance - some sprang up to service or manufacture cars around the racing track or were used by pioneers such as Sir Alliot Verdon Roe to construct his 1908 biplane, the first UK-designed aircraft to carry a British pilot - albeit only a few feet off the ground.
At Brooklands, the collection is a living one, with volunteers everywhere getting stuck into servicing and maintaining the cars. There are also hands-on experiences available for pupils, including a chance to ride a penny-farthing or sit in the cockpit of a Hawker jet and a Formula 1 racing car.
Whole groups are able to climb on board a scale model of a Wellington Bomber and a 1950s Vickers Viscount passenger jet. In addition, there is a dedicated education suite and a science discovery room, packed with models, games and machines. Brooklands has a charming, slightly higgledy-piggledy feel at its fringes, though big changes are afoot now Mercedes have decided to pump big bucks into creating a visitors' centre nearby, housing its own historic vehicle collection as well as helping fund the restoration of a large section of the original Brooklands track.
Asked what he would do if he crashed while racing one of the early motor cars, Ben (5) said: "I'd build it again."
* Cost: pound;3 per pupil for key stages 1-4, pound;4 for students aged 16 and above. Admission includes a guided tour of the museum, entry to Discovery@Brooklands and other educational activities. Adult supervisors are admitted free