A day with the classics

IF YOU'RE a lover of classic cars and motorbikes and you just happen to be visiting England, you really must set aside a day to leg it to the glorious New Forest to visit the National Motor Museum in the beautiful village of Beaulieu.

It's one of the top visitor attractions in the south of England and it is, without doubt, one of the finest auto museums in the world.

Originally called the Montagu Motor Museum, it was founded in 1952 by the current Lord Montagu as a tribute to his father, who was one of the great pioneers of motoring in Britain, being the first person to drive a motor car into the yard of the Houses of Parliament. It's also said that he introduced Queen Victoria's son, King Edward VII, then the Prince of Wales, to motoring during the 1890s.

The museum started in a small way with just a few cars displayed in the hall of Lord Montagu's ancestral home, but it soon proved very popular and the collection grew rapidly.

In 1964, I worked at the museum and it was by then a thriving attraction with around half a million visitors a year.

But the collection had become so large it needed a purpose built home. In 1972, a magnificent museum building in the grounds of the Beaulieu estate was officially opened to house the 300 or so exhibits.

And to reflect change of status from a private collection to a charitable trust, in the same year it became known as the National Motor Museum.

I dropped by the museum last week. I recognized many of the exhibits, but the museum has changed beyond all recognition. Today, the museum tells the story of motoring from World Land Speed Record Breakers to Formula 1 racers.

The BBC's hit TV show, Top Gear, is very much in evidence at Beaulieu. And visitors can take a ride around the attraction on the high-level Monorail or see the sights from the replica 1912 London Bus.

In addition to displaying some of the finest and most famous cars in history, Beaulieu also hosts many events which attract car and motorbike buffs from around the world.

Throughout the year, there's always something happening at Beaulieu with car rallies, boat and auto jumbles, hot-rod festivals, Simply Rallies plus an extensive program of educational activities designed for children of all ages.

Beaulieu recently hosted the annual 5th Motorcycle Ride-In which attracted over 1,100 motorbikes with riders coming in from all corners of the United Kingdom and some from overseas.

And this coming Sunday, there'll be the Simply Japanese rally, now in its third year, in which owners of Japanese cars can show them off to an admiring audience of fellow-owners and the public.

In addition to the museum, the ticket includes entry into Palace House, home of the Montagu family since 1538, and Beaulieu Abbey with its exhibition and film of monastic life.

Last year, Beaulieu was voted the best large visitor attraction in the UK by Visit England. I can see why. For further details see www.beaulieu.co.uk


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