Flights of fancy

DAYS OUT: the Whiteman family take a trip back in time to the heady days of those magnificent men in their flying machines.
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The Independent Travel
The Sea Hurricane made a low pass over the grass airstrip, its throaty roar drowning all conversation. Inside the hangar the strains of Glenn Miller music, played by a local big band, had just died away.

There were about 7,000 of us, at one of the biggest events of the year at the Shuttleworth Collection, at Old Warden, near Biggleswade, home of some of the oldest aircraft in the world still flying.

The difference between the Shuttleworth Collection and others of its kind is that virtually all the 40 historic aircraft - they date from the birth of powered flight - really fly. The collection takes its name from Richard Shuttleworth, of Old Warden Park, engineer, aviator and winner of the 1935 British Grand Prix, who joined the RAF in 1939 and was killed in a night flying accident 12 months later.

On a quiet day the little grass airstrip and cluster of small hangars set in the rolling Bedfordshire countryside must look much as it did during the Second World War. Then, it was used as a repair workshop, mainly for wooden-structured aircraft. Today the complex is open seven days a week, but it still has an intimacy about it - probably because it is run by a tiny staff with a huge reserve of volunteers who turn out willingly on flying days.

You can view the permanent displays, including an original Bleriot machine similar to the one that made the first aerial crossing of the Channel in 1909. Several others are reminiscent of the aircraft used in the classic late-Sixties film Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.

The Saturday I visited, 15 of the historic planes were flying, in addition to a number of visiting aircraft. This evening there is a sunset flying display, in which, weather permitting, the organisers have promised to try to fly some of the oldest canvas-and-string machines on show.

The visitors

Philip Whiteman, an engineer, and his sons William, nine, Leo, seven, and Julius, five.

Philip: We live 90 miles away in Middlesex, but I try to take the boys to the collection at least once a year. There is only one other place like it in the world - in the US - where aircraft of this vintage are actually flown. The Shuttleworth Collection is a wonderful outing on a flying day when the weather is fair and the flying conditions good. And children love the flying, particularly on one of the big flying days, because there are often formation and aerobatic teams as well as some of the permanent collection flying.

We all also like the atmosphere here. It is more like a village fete than a big air show. All the pilots and most of the ground staff do the job for the love of it.

William: I particularly enjoyed the Sopwith Triplane, First World War fighter. It's a replica but it shows what conditions must have been like in that war. It flew brilliantly today. I also like the Hurricane, and the bigger jets. Today we had a Seahawk from the Royal Navy historic flight. It was a jet, so it flew very fast.

I also like the stalls and the books and videos and models of aircraft and spacecraft you can buy. I am really interested in flying. I have flown in a 1944 Piper Cub with Dad.

It is really friendly here. We sometimes come with our cousins and meet other friends here. It's a long journey but it is worthwhile - especially if the sun is shining and the flying conditions are good.

When we come I always go with Dad to see the permanent exhibits in the hangars. There is always some interesting work in progress on one or two of the old planes, and I also like the First World War memorabilia and displays of what life was like in the Royal Flying Corps.

Leo: I like the weaving around and the diamond patterns of the Tiger Moth display team. They were so close together at times that I thought they were going to crash.

I am learning to play the piano, so I like the big band.

I also like the stalls. Dad usually buys us model aircraft kits and we often start assembling them here. I completed one and managed to fly it at one air day. I also like the collection of old cars here. I love everything to do with flying. I want to be a pilot when I grow up.

Julius: I love all the older aeroplanes. Friends of mine like the model railway and the steam engines and the children's playground, but I prefer the planes.

The deal

Flying today, Saturday 19 July, at 6.30pm. Gates open from 10am

The Shuttleworth Collection, Old Warden Aerodrome, near Biggleswade, Beds (01767 627288) is best reached by road from the Al. It is two miles due west of the Al and is signposted from the roundabout north-west of Biggleswade town centre.

From Ampthill follow the A507 towards the A600, then the A600 towards Bedford. There are signs to the collection along minor roads.

Trains on the Great Northern and Network South East route to and from King's Cross stop at Biggleswade.

Local bus services are infrequent, but Old Warden aerodrome can be reached on weekdays on United Counties route 180. Call 01604 20077 for information and 01234 228337 for information on Sunday bus services.

Opening times: daily, 10am-4pm (3pm from 27 Oct) Closed for two weeks over Christmas and New Year.

Admission: Flying days are the first Sunday of the month, up to and including 5 October. Admission pounds 9 per car with driver, inclusive of parking. Driver plus one passenger, pounds 15; driver plus 2-4 passengers, pounds 22.

On non-flying days and weekdays admission is pounds 6 for adults, pounds 4 senior citizens, students and 5-16 year-olds.

Facilities: restaurant offering full meals and snacks open daily. Gift shop. Children's playground.

Access: wheelchair access to all areas of the collection.

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