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So much more than just a Motor Museum!
National Motor Museum (Hampshire)
Member Name: azana
National Motor Museum (Hampshire)
Date: 24/05/10, updated on 24/05/10 (198 review reads)
Advantages: lots to see
Disadvantages: dependent on weather?
Beaulieu is situated in the New Forest, a short drive from Junction 2 of the M27, near to other attractions such as Exbury Gardens and Bucklers Hard. It's somewhere I've been to a fair few times throughout the years, each time I've been there have been a few changes, this time I was pleased to see a new "Top Gear" exhibit that is probably worth a trip on its own merits.
Entrance fees can be found on the Beaulieu website, I used a free child voucher that I downloaded, (details of both sites below), on my most recent visit this year. You pay for children over 5, adults cost £16.50 at the time of my trip, you can return for free within 6 days if staying in the area, and if you "Gift Aid" you can return to the Motor Museum all year for free, though not when there are special events on. I would say that in fine weather you are likely to spend all day at the site, which makes it quite good value in my view.
Beaulieu is primarily what I suppose you would call a Stately Home - it's home to the Montagu family who still reside in Palace House, an intriguing mishmash of Victorian and much earlier construction and part of the visit. The Motor Museum has been on the site since 1952.
When you first arrive at Beaulieu, a good way of seeing what there is to visit is to take a trip on the Monorail, this goes all round the whole grounds, this is what we did on our recent visit. There's one stop near to the Palace House and gardens and the other next to the 70's-looking Motor Museum and Top Gear section. I am not sure if the latter attraction is going to be a permanent fixture - though not huge there are quite a number of cars from the show to see, if you are a Clarkson and co fan you are sure to delight in seeing cars from the challenges such as the memorable amphibious "Dampervan" and the mopeds the team travelled around Vietnam on. Even if you only have a mild interest in the show and indeed cars - that would be me then - seeing the cars is quite interesting, the descriptions of them were very informative though the words "this is the actual car...." were rather overused! Still who couldn't fail to stare in wonder at a limo with a bowling alley in it and the car fitted out as a cottage? After seeing all this the Bond exhibition next to it can seem a little bit of a let down, however there are 10 or so "actual" Bond cars to see before you carry on with your visit.
As you visit the actual Motor Museum, the interior of which is glimpsed during the monorail ride as the train actually goes through the roof, there's a new exhibit at the entrance called "Promotion". These are vehicles made to promote products such as the Creme Egg and Peas, and made to look like the items they were used to advertise. We really enjoyed seeing the Outspan Orange car and then made our way into the main bit of the museum. Here you will see a huge collection of cars starting from some made in 1895 and up to modern day cars. There's the Bluebird world speed car and a lawnmower currently being used to try and set the World Speed Record for mowers, racing cars, vintage cars all beautifully maintained and with their chrome gleaming. I'm not *that* interested in cars but even I find the extent and the variety of the collection always has me fascinated. Every now and then there's an oddball car to see, the Mr Bean car or even motorised roller skates; it's an impressive and varied collection.
Moving on to visit the rest of the site, via a replica 1912 open topped double decker bus if you will, there's much more to see. The Abbey, which is partly in ruins, and has an exhibition in part of it about life as a monk, is worth spending some time at too. It is a haven of tranquillity, as a plaque from the Head of the SEO (Special Forces) points out - the reason being that in the War Beaulieu was used to train up Spies before they set off on their missions. A small exhibition near to the Palace House about the Special Forces makes for fascinating, if slightly tragic, reading. The survival rate for those who passed through Beaulieu on their way to missions in Europe was less than 50%. Some of the stories about the people who passed through Beaulieu are inspiring, others are heart breaking, I was interested to see some of the Spy paraphernalia that was exhibited, including a surprisingly stylish ladies' knuckle duster ring!
Onto the Palace House and gardens, which are both beautiful and again an integral part of the visit. You can wander around the public part of the house, and apparently when Lord Montagu is in residence small tours of the private part of the house can be arranged. On previous trips some of the cars from the museum have been running and setting off from outside the house - there were none on my last trip, but when you see a vintage car parked outside the Palace you do feel that you have stumbled into a one of those quintessential British films!
There's a couple of more things to mention - access for pushchairs and wheelchairs is clearly signed throughout the site - I'm not sure either can be taken into Palace House itself, but elsewhere everything is accessible. There's a small children's play area which is quite cute, containing as it does little vehicles and petrol pumps as well as a swing or two, made of tyres of course! There's also a couple of motorised cars for children to drive for no extra cost.
There is a good picnic area with tables outside and a couple undercover, and the restaurant seemed to have quite a good range of food - we took a picnic though did have a delicious New Forest Ice Cream. We also found a good range at the Souvenir Shop, the eldest left clutching a motorised Camper van that was quite good value at under £4, and there were plenty of cars, Top Gear Stuff and the normal pens and such like that you tend to expect at museums these days. As for the toilets - again baby change and disabled toilets at both places where there are toilets at Beaulieu - the ones at the Abbey, which, having small children I visited several times, are probably the nicest I have been to at any attraction anywhere, very posh!
The museum does hold special events, details on the website, I've never been to one of these so cannot comment as to how good they are, the very kind and helpful man on the car ride did say that Beaulieu does get busy during these events but on non Summer weekends it is not over busy - this has certainly been our experience when we have been there on rainy and sunny days alike. I would have to say that all the staff we encountered were exceptionally helpful and polite on our recent trip, I overheard a Footman in the palace having a very good go at speaking German too, which is rare in any UK attraction in my experience.
For me a visit to Beaulieu in the sun is most enjoyable as you can make the most of wandering around the grounds and even though there were quite a lot of visitors on the day we went most recently it never felt crowded. On our recent trip there was nothing more exciting than a gathering of Peugot coupe 406 cars in the outside arena area - it was quite a sight seeing so many identical model cars, but one for the enthusiast only I feel!
That's the thing about the National Motoring Museum, if you are into cars in a big way you are going to love it, but if your interest is more casual it's still a good place to go. I've no idea how Beaulieu came to have its name, which, in French anyway, would be "Beautiful place", but it does seem a fitting one. There's certainly lots to do, and I look forward to my next visit in what is a beautiful part of the world. Recommended.
www.beaulieu.co.uk - for further details and directions - the info on the site that your satnav is likely to send you via junction 3 not 2 of the M27 was accurate in our case and duly ignored, more helpful info on the site
www.visit-hampshire.co.uk - for current discount vouchers
Summary: one of the best attractions in the new forest
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