Dad completes military mission in DorsetBy Leigh Mencarini
June 02, 2010
With Father’s Day fast approaching next month, LEIGH MENCARINI recommends having a blast with the old man at the fully-loaded British Tank Museum in picturesque Dorset
People have often told me I take after my dad, and on the whole I have to agree.
We both like cars and guitars, we have similar tastes in music. We’re incredibly stubborn and like to be right about things pretty much all of the time. And I’ve also inherited the infamous ‘Mencarini frown’.
However, in recent years, dad has developed something of a fascination with military vehicles.
He purchased a 1953 Austin Champ nearly six years ago for restoration and since then has trawled the internet, classic car fairs and scrapyards for spare parts, delving into the history of British army vehicles.
None of that is really my bag, so there the similarities end.
Or so I thought, until dad and I paid a visit to The Tank Museum near Bovington, Dorset.
Fresh from a £16.5 million redevelopment last year, the museum is home to the world’s largest tank and armoured car collection, with more than 200 of the military vehicles in six huge halls.
These include the first ever British Mark I tank prototype – Little Willie, invented in 1915 – and follows the tank’s history with models from Allied, German, Russian and other forces around the world, right up to those in use today.
The museum doesn’t only bring the story of the tank to life, but also that of the crew and soldiers. The Trench Experience allows you to walk in the footsteps of a Second World War soldier, making your way through the ‘muddy’ tunnels while the sound of bullets whiz above the matted barbed wire on the ground overhead.
Then you can climb into a Mark IX tank and hear how the crew managed to drive in such cramped conditions, for the hot, dusty engine is located in the centre of the tank’s body and there was little light to see at all.
Dad was in his element, especially since you can have a proper, hands-on gander around the machines, some of which have their engines on full display. I too found myself becoming more fascinated by the story of the tank – particular favourites included the Thornycroft Bison concrete armoured lorry, an example of the desperate state of Britain’s defences in 1940. These vehicles had a lorry chassis and were improvised tanks with a layer of concrete on the exterior.
Then there was the Praying Mantis, designed in 1937 – an experimental two-man machine gun carrier, with an elevated box where the soliders would lie, face down, and be lifted to a higher vantage point of fire. Well, they would have, had the prototype not been considered something of a joke.
There were amphibious carriers (tanks that could drive in water), flamethrowers, mine flailers, bridge makers – all kinds of tanks not familiar to me but dad had heard of them all.
He was most pleased to see the Bren Gun (or Universal) Carrier, a light armoured tracked vehicle that my grandfather Thomas Mencarini travelled in during the Second World War. He remembers his dad gave him a toy model of one as a child and telling him so.
After five hours of heavy-duty tank action, we admitted defeat – although you could easily spend two days there, especially on a tank action display day where the machines demonstrate their might around the outdoor arena.
We were staying at the nearby Springfield Country Hotel, near Wareham, which is ideally located not just for the museum but other Dorset attractions, too. Our cosy country rooms each had a balcony overlooking the leisure club and spa, as well as flatscreen TVs and a modern bath and shower room.
A 10-minute drive south east took us to the National Trust’s celebrated Corfe Castle. Despite the ravages of the last 1,000 years, the broken structure still delivers stunning views over the Purbeck Hills, as its crumbling stones are slowly reclaimed by nature following its destruction by Parliamentarians in 1646.
Access to the Jurassic Coast is easy from the hotel and an absolute must for geology fans, especially to discover another of Dorset’s treasures – Lulworth Cove.
The cove, which gained World Heritage Site status in 2001, was formed around 10,000 years ago and is a breathtaking example of a horseshoe bay.
On the way up the hill linking the cove to its neighbour Durdle Door, the limestone arch just west along the coastline, dad had the perfect opportunity to test my GCSE knowledge of rock formations.
So what’s the difference between sedimentary and metamorphic? And of course, a know-it-all Mencarini like me would have to get it right...