- Did you know that there's a former royal palace in Harrow?
- Much of it was built by Sir John Soane.
- It played a pivotal role in the Battle of Britain, and the planning of D-Day.
Any of these historic connections would make Bentley Priory worth a visit. Yet this tremendous museum could only muster a handful of visitors on the Saturday afternoon we dropped by. It deserves to be better known.
Bentley Priory can be found north-west of Stanmore. As the name suggests, a religious order flourished here in medieval days, though all traces are now gone. After a glorious history, and a period in limbo, Soane's Georgian building reopened as a visitor attraction in 2014. It is simultaneously one of London's newest and least well-known museums.
All visitors must report to a concierge at the entrance gate. It feels like a throwback to the site's military past, but this is the 21st century. The barrier is a security measure for the expensive houses that have grown up around the Priory. But the concierge is super-friendly and welcomes us in to the grounds.
Once inside the perimeter, the Grade II* buildings of the museum come into view. If you've walked section 15 of the London Loop through this part of the capital, then you've probably spotted the distinctive tower before.
Up close, the priory looks like a miniature version of Osborne House, Queen Victoria's famous retreat on the Isle of Wight. Bentley Priory has its own royal past. Queen Adelaide, widow of William IV lived here in her final years. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert paid her a visit in 1848. This was a bona fide royal palace.
After the royals moved on, the buildings served as a school and a hotel before the Royal Air Force moved in. During the second world war, RAF Bentley Priory was home to Fighter Command, under the stewardship of Sir Hugh Dowding. The Battle of Britain was planned, orchestrated and won from these rooms. A Spitfire and Hurricane now guard the entrance as a taster of what's to come.
The museum interior is gorgeous, as you'd expect from a John Soane building. Elaborate ceilings, a grand staircase, the sitting room of Queen Adelaide and the centrepiece rotunda would make this a stately home worth visiting in its own right.
But this is chiefly a war museum, as the patriotic stained glass windows attest. Displays include a good mix of traditional wall-mounted information and interactive exhibits. Climb inside a replica Spitfire cockpit, dress up in war gear, and act like your grandparents with a dial-telephone and typewriter. The main gallery explains the importance of radar to Britain's defence, and the role Bentley Priory played in sifting and filtering the radar readings.
The centrepiece — unusually — is a video. The 10-minute film explains the background to the Battle of Britain and Hugh Dowding's role in victory. The show is projected onto the walls and ceiling of Dowding's office. It's all rather impressive. Don't miss it.
A pleasant cafe, temporary exhibition space and beautiful gardens with a view of Harrow on the Hill complete the visit. Oh, and you have to salute the clever flush mechanism in the gents toilets. Chocks away!
Opened as recently as 2014, Bentley Priory Museum is as smartly presented as an Air Chief Marshall in full dress uniform. The staff are friendly, knowledgeable and keen to help. The building tells the story of 'Britain's finest hour' in a succinct and compelling way. All it lacks is a decent footfall. Make sure Bentley Priory is on your own radar, and pay a visit soon.
Bentley Priory is most easily reached by car, which may explain its paucity of visitors. By public transport, your best bet is a 10-minute bus ride on the number 142 from Stanmore station. Other options here. Adults £8.80, children £4.40, with various concessions available. Open Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday.