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It's a rare thing to see a hovercraft in action these days, but on the south coast there's a small museum dedicated to keeping alive knowledge of this British invention.

Sandwiched between the sea, an airfield and a rapidly expanding housing development in Lee-on-the-Solent near Portsmouth, the world's only Hovercraft Museum is the antithesis of this article's title and aim. The museum is well worth seeing, but in no way can a visit be classed as a detour.

Partly because of its location, partly because of its niche appeal, and partly because there's no signs up for it yet, you cannot stumble upon, or quickly pop into, this museum. You will have to actively seek it out.

Do so, though, and you will be richly rewarded. This is a comprehensive repository of all things hovercraft-related. The museum has 65 hovercraft in different states of repair, ranging from small one-seaters to the largest hovercraft ever made, the SRN4.

There are hovercraft made for children, hovercraft made for James Bond films, hovercraft that carried the Queen (just the once), portable inflatable hovercraft, even a collection of amateur hovercraft made from plywood, awnings and lawnmower parts.

The hovercraft are spread over two hangars with some outside. The main hangar contains the most, as well as a strangely quaint exhibition about hovercraft, consisting of a set of information boards from the 1970s, sponsored by BP. The second hangar is used for maintenance--the museum's enthusiastic volunteers are aiming to have at least a quarter of their inventory operational. Visitors can wander around and observe, but not go into the working area.

It's great to see the work going on, and the maintenance area is representative of the hands-on, warts-and-all state of the museum. This is not a slick experience, there are no interactive infotainment modules. But you do get to touch, climb onto and into the hovercraft. You can even lift up the skirts of one, if you have the strength, to peer underneath.

All the time there are well-informed volunteers around, happy to talk you through the engineering principles or to give you the background on a particular machine.

Outside, the two large SRN4 hovercraft, the Princess Anne and the Princess Margret, loom as large as the hangars that surround them, the red, white and blue livery on their fins the only giveaway that you are approaching the museum.

As well as being the centrepiece of the museum, they are the focal point for controversy, because their presence there is under threat. The site owner, the Homes and Communities Agency, wants to develop the land they occupy for housing. A petition is ongoing to preserve the SRN4 that is in the best condition, the Princess Anne.

The Hovercraft Museum has reopened after a two-year closure. A visit will last not more than two hours and the price of admission is good value at 7 [pounds sterling] for adults and 5 [pounds sterling] for children, with reductions for families, OAPs and service personnel. The museum is guaranteed to be open on Saturdays between 1000 and 1600 and will open more regularly in school holidays.

You will have to drive there unless you brave the local bus service, but be careful to use the P013 9NS postcode with the satnav, or you risk arriving at the underdeveloped rear of the site. Also, there is only one main road in and out of Lee-on-the-Solent, so be aware of traffic during peak times. It may be a struggle to get to but, as an antidote to the slick experience of many museums, the hands-on Hovercraft Museum makes for a great trip.

For more details, see: www.hovercraft-museum.org

LOOK THE LEARN

FIVE THINGS TO SEE

1 SRN4 hovercraft: These 250-ton behemoths were built by the British Hovercraft Corporation in the 1970s and could carry up to 400 passengers and 55 cars.

2 Hovercraft chair: Witness the classic experiment to demonstrate the working principles of a hovercraft. You sit on a chair in a small enclosed area and float around.

3 The original SRN6 hovercraft: The oldest hovercraft still operational in the world, this is a prototype of one of the most successful designs ever produced.

4 VT2 propellers: The massive blades from this hovercraft, once made by the engineering giant Vosper-Thomycroft, are contained in the museum's main hangar.

5 Hoverfest: Planned for the summer season for the first time in several years. A number of hovercraft will be flown during this special day of events at the museum.
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Title Annotation:Worth a detour: PE finds places to go and things to do
Author:Sampson, Ben
Publication:Professional Engineering Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 2016
Words:720
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