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Wings Museum, Balcombe – A Quick Review of a Dad and Lad Day Out

an old car at the wings museum in Balcombe
Having fun at the Wings Museum

The lovely thing about having children is you get to watch them go through various phases in life. For my daughter, that included a “princess phase”, where she would never go out without a “spinny dress” and a tiara, a “sporty phase” where she would sign up for endless football and netball classes and, at the moment, a “1990s phase” where she watches repeats of “Friends” on Netflix, wears Nirvana t-shirts with flower printed jeans and generally makes me feel very, very old indeed.

For The Boy, however, his phases are generally characterised by a deep interest in various items of deadly weaponry. He previously went through a “tank phase” which culminated in our visit to the Tank Museum in Bovington, a “guns phase” which has resulted in his bedroom looking like the Armoury of a large Infantry Battalion in Iraq and is now in his “warplanes phase” which means both The Wife and I have to answer many questions on the wingspan of a Mk 1 Spitfire, how many machine guns a B-17 bomber has, and can he watch “Masters of The Air” on Apple TV+ tonight?

This, as you can imagine, is somewhat tiring because I am at an age where my chief preoccupations are “When can I sit down?” and “When can I have a cup of tea in peace?” 

As I have previously discovered, the best way to get through each childhood phase is to feed the curiosity with a trip somewhere, so it was with some sense of relief that I stumbled upon the Wings Aviation Museum, which is near Balcombe in Sussex.

Wings Museum, Balcombe

an old world war 2 bomber and aviation suit at the wings museum in Balcombe

If you’ve never heard of Balcombe, it’s about 15 mins from Gatwick Airport or 25 minutes from Brighton. It’s rated as the first – and only – best thing to do in Balcombe on TripAdvisor, which doesn’t surprise me because I’ve driven through Balcombe before and the only other thing to do there is look at the farmers’ fields, which no small boy wants to do.  

The Wings Museum is a complete hidden gem for anyone with even a passing interest in World War 2 aviation. It’s a voluntary organisation and a registered charity so the entrance fee (£12.50 for adults and £7 for children – under 5’s free), is a donation to the preservation fund. If you’re a UK taxpayer, that means it’s also eligible for Gift Aid, so you’re donating to a totally worthy cause.  

As you drive to the Museum (SatNav postcode RH17 6JT), the roads start to become a little spartan and you soon find yourself in a farmer’s field, because that’s where it’s located, and a rather plain green hangar comes into view. You suddenly start to doubt your directions as the surrounding area is very obviously a farm, but the flagpole with the RAF Ensign flying in the wind reassures you that you’re on the right path.

As you park up, the other clue is what looks like a very vicious-looking anti-aircraft gun hidden under a tarpaulin before you tentatively peer through a small door in the large, green hangar to see if this is, indeed, the right place.

Things to See at the Wings Museum

a 1932 Austin car with an old newspaper cutting and a mannequin wearing a war bomber suit

It certainly is the right place, and the first thing you will notice is you are heartily greeted by a very enthusiastic and very friendly volunteer who will explain that inside, there is an abundance of original memorabilia from areas such as the Home Front, Bomber Command, Fighter Planes and about ten other things which I have forgotten.

After such an enthusiastic sales pitch, you cheerfully part with your money to have a look. On the day we arrived, there was a second, equally passionate volunteer who quickly asked if The Boy would like to hold a Bren Gun. This is the equivalent of asking me if I’d like a nice sit-down and a cup of tea – there is no need to ask twice.

a boy on the ground with a gun

Within a millisecond The Boy was excitedly posing with the light machine gun of his choice, plus a .303 Lee Enfield rifle, both of which are part of a static display about life on the Home Front.

Other items on display include engines, airframes, cockpits, aircraft gun turrets and uniforms but if you’re expecting a slick, professional and slightly sterile layout of displays like you’d see in bigger museums, this place is decidedly not it.

Partly because of a lack of space to display everything, and partly because this is a very small, very well-intentioned charity, there is a charming air of eccentric chaos to the displays, not least because a lot of the airframes have been recovered from crash sites and the twisted metal adds a general feeling of bedlam to the building.

a world war 2 plane with Lilly Bell II written on it

The layout is definitely more garden maze than supermarket aisle and you’re never quite sure what’s around the corner, so if you’re a bit chaotic (like me), you’ll enjoy the turmoil. However, if you’re the sort of person with OCD who can’t take in information unless it’s laid out, in a sterile, chronological order in front of you, you’ll probably not enjoy it as much as I did.

The absolute star of the show at the Wings Museum is the genuine C-47 Dakota used as a prop in the incredible WW2 TV series Band of Brothers. For someone like me who has watched that box set no less than fifty times, the chance to sit where Lt Lewis Nixon sat is like being able to touch the Holy Grail.

c-47b Dakota fuselage as seen on Band of Brothers

While the cockpit area itself is firmly protected by a plexiglass screen, you can walk through the rest of the plane while getting a very real sense of the fear and claustrophobia WW2 paratroopers must have felt as they prepared to jump into Occupied Europe.

There’s also the opportunity for children (and big children) to try their hand at Morse code at the signallers’ station, navigation at the navigators’ desk and pretend to be a jumpmaster by the door where there’s a genuine military parachute to try on – and boy, are they heavy!

Ultimately though, the Wings Museum is quite a small space that they have managed to lovingly cram quite a lot into, but depending on your child’s appetite for reading, you’re probably done after an hour or so.

Food and Drink at the Wings Museum

a tunnel in the Wings Museum

If you get peckish, there’s a small fridge by the entrance counter that sells coke, water and chocolate, plus a coffee machine if you want something hot. Outside, there’s a prefab building that contains some basic, but clean, toilet facilities.

If you’re planning a whole morning or afternoon out, my advice would be to combine the visit with some of the other attractions nearby, such as the Bluebell Railway, or perhaps a nice pub lunch in some of the lovely country pubs nearby.

Final Thoughts

a boy using a canon in a museum

The Boy duly rated the day 10/10 and I feel obliged to give it a similar score because while not as flashy or polished as, say, the museum at RAF Tangmere, it’s an obvious labour of love for the volunteers who run it and it’s obvious that with more space and money, it would in time become a fascinating museum.

So, if you’ve got a small person who’s really into aeroplanes and/or WW2, the Wings Museum is definitely worth a visit for an hour. Sure, it’s not a flashy day out at Thorpe Park, but if enough people support it, maybe it could become that. It deserves to. And after a morning of learning about bombers, you’ll deserve a nice sit-down. And that cup of tea.

Details and Opening Hours

The Wings Museum is located at Unit 1, Bucklands Farm, Brantridge Lane, Near Balcombe, West Sussex RH17 6JT. It is open Tuesday to Sunday between 10:00 am – 5:00 pm, with the last admission at 4:15 pm.

The Wings Museum Website can be found here and the Wings Museum reviews on TripAdvisor can be read here.

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