Lindsay Want discovers a Waveney Valley place to remember which welcomes everyone with flying colours all year round – Flixton’s Norfolk & Suffolk Aviation Museum near Bungay
WING it along from Harleston. Dive down by Homersfield Bridge. Loop the loop round towards Flixton and, whatever time of year, you land between The Buck Inn and Ye Olde Post Office, you’re sure to come face to nose-cone with some truly grounded and fascinatingly familiar high-flying friends from the past.
Watch out for the red Whirlwind (helicopter) and keep vigilant for the camouflaged Sea Vixen (fighter), for right by the gates of East Anglia’s aviation heritage centre, there’s already a colourful crew mustered 24/7, for all to see 365 days of the year. Stop and wonder at the 1950s ‘Mystère’ and get a feel how for how the sound-barrierbreaking Super Sabre was a cut above the rest, then on the museum’s many open days venture further to discover eight acres of engineering nostalgia - a true tribute to the boundless innovation and bravery of pioneers and fighting souls for whom the skies were never a limit.
PAWS FOR THOUGHT
In the shadow of a Hawker Hunter outside great Hangar No. 1, Griffon the black tom-cat waits patiently to pounce on the next passerby and purr. Few welcomes could ever be as warm or appropriate as the sound of his engine ticking over like some finely-tuned Spitfire. Come sunshine or showers, misty autumn morning or bright blue-sky spring day, the faithful Flixton feline is sure to be sauntering about somewhere between Huby Fairhead in the shop and his dear wife, Josie, who serves up the all-important cuppas, cakes and refreshments in The NAAFI café, keeping visitors, volunteers and four-legged friends content. “They call me the curator,” confides Huby in sincere East Anglian tones, “but I reckon I’m more of a keeper really.” He makes the twelve mile trip in from Loddon every day - “that’s five days working and two days to feed the cat!” – yet from the love in his voice, you just know that, zoo-keeper or no, he’d not have it any other way.
A MASSIVE MENAGERIE LIKE NO OTHER
Outside by the cockpits, the Meteor and the MiG, a Bloodhound (MKI SAM missile) sits with its nose in the air. Get past the Vampire in Hangar 1 and the space beyond is filled with Grasshoppers, Wasps, even the odd Flying Flea, Colditz Cock and Goldfinch Amphibian. Of course, Griffon takes them all in his stride, preferring perhaps a gentle prowl down the countryside catwalk (aka. the Adair memorial boardwalk) to keep an eye on the siskins or console a weeping willow or two. A massive menagerie it might seem, but with around 25,000 flight-related exhibits including over 60 full-size aircraft, it’s all a far-cry from those early 1970s days when former World War I pilot, Jim Patterson, had given the nascent collection a home in the old Nissen hut next to the veg patch behind his post-office. Lettuces and 5,000 pairs of unexpected feet just didn’t mix back then though. So, keen to safeguard his new-found trade, the landlord of The Buck next door soon stepped in with a barn and a bit of back garden. By the end of the decade, the centre was gaining ground, established as a charity, a limited company and had a prestigious President in form of the Wing Commander, Ken Wallis, developer of the Wallis Autogyro (remember Sean Connery flying ‘Little Nellie’ in that 1967 Bond Movie, You only live twice?)
And the rest, as they say, is history – collected, donated, restored, loved, re-created and most importantly, never forgotten. There’s a WWI Felixstowe Flying Boat saved from its after-life rotting as a potting shed for over sixty years; a replica turn of the 20th century monoplane; the full-blown wreckage of two WWII Wellington Bombers recovered from their local collision site; a mighty Vickers Valetta flown in from Norwich Airport under
a Chinook helicopter. Hiding beyond the shop is a revealing display about wartime decoy antics, a reconstructed Anderson shelter, 1940s cottage interior and modelmaker’s den straight out of the sixties. Elsewhere, little ones love climbing into specially made cockpits or trundling round in brightly coloured wooden planes courtesy of skilled chippy volunteer hands, whilst older enquiring minds might try to make head or tail of the hang-gliders, the rows of sinister ejector seats or find out what it’s actually like to fly a plane in one of the centre’s historic flight simulators.
ALWAYS A PLACE TO REMEMBER
To be fair there’s just too much to take in. And what’s more, the site includes many exhibition buildings dedicated to special forces like the Royal Observer Corps, RAF Bomb Command, RAF Air-Sea Rescue & Coastal Command and Flixton Airfield based USAAF 446th Bomb Group - each one crying out to be considered as museums in their own right. Hats off to Huby and the volunteer team then who, unlike many of East Anglia’s stand-alone military museum sites, somehow manage to keep the home fires burning and gates open for several days a week, pretty much throughout the whole year. “It’s all about friendship and remembrance really,” shares Huby, pausing to run his hand down Griffon’s black back to hear the Spitfire purr. There’s talk of his next book about the inscribed bricks from the former wartime depot - Ditchingham Maltings near Beccles - saved as recently as 2012, now displayed in the 446th Bomb Group building. “It’s a wall that’s simply so much more than just bricks and mortar,“muses the retired bricklayer who was instrumental in saving the ‘artefacts’, carved with names, initials and memories by American servicemen stationed on the Suffolk-Norfolk borders. “It just wouldn’t do to lose it.” And therein lies the tale of the brimful Suffolk & Norfolk Aviation Museum perhaps. For here, everything of all shapes and sizes has its own special, often unexpectedly poignant stories to tell - the tiniest fragile button; the bought-on-the-black-market bomber jacket; fragments of fuselage; miniature planes made by mindful hands, and the monthly phone calls which Huby still gets from an ever-home-sick GI bride.
THE POWER OF SHARING: A NOVEMBER MOMENT IN FLIXTON’S 446TH BOMB GROUP USAAF MUSEUM
“Hey, I know you told me to wrap up warm, Hun, but this is ridiculous!” calls the woman in the red scarf and ear muffs, loudly. Together with a scattering of warm and otherwise comfortable visitors, a gentleman - clearly in the firing line - raises and rolls his eyes away from his study of the aircraft navigation computer dials on display in front of him. For just a moment, a silent, communal tut of irritation hangs as heavy in the air as the section of bomber tail-plane suspended above the Nissen hut doorway.
The loud voice comes again: “Fancy wearing sheepskin trousers, a sheepskin jacket, two pairs of lined wool socks, a leather hat, a plugged-in heated flying suit and having to sit for hours airborne in this tiny gunner’s turret.” The machine-gun delivery halts a second. irritation evaporates, suffocated by an air now heavier than a whole B24 Liberator itself. Gaze shifts to glaze. Then finally the last machine-gun splutter: “Well, at least they got to eat candy.“
Back with the air navigation dead reckoning computer, the gentleman looks on. Somehow the night sky identification dials suddenly seem to be all about counting your lucky stars.
The aircraft greet you as you arrive at Flixton. All photos: Lindsay Want