National Cold War Exhibition
& Royal Air Force Museum
Both a branch of the RAF
Museum (the other one is in London
) and the location of the National Cold War
Exhibition, and it is in particular the latter that makes travelling to this part of Britain
worth it for dark tourists too (aviation enthusiasts will love it anyway).
Cosford was founded as a military airfield in 1938, i.e. just before WWII
, and it remains active, though these days primarily only as a training centre.
The RAF Museum as such was founded as a first branch that opened in Hendon, London
, in 1972 (now under the designation RAF Museum Colindale), and its second branch at RAF Cosford first opened in 1979, because the site had already been used for storage of airframes not on display in London. The museum grew and at one point was also home to the British Airways collection of civilian aircraft (but since BA withdrew funding for this, most planes of that collection were scrapped).
The additional National Cold War Exhibition opened in 2007 in a specially-constructed hall of a striking design. As part of this section one each of all three so-called V-Bombers (Valiant, Victor and Vulcan) are on display – the only place in the world where this is the case.
Part of the museum is also the Test Flight section which holds a number of rare or even unique prototype aircraft, including a TSR-2 (one of only two surviving airframes of this legendary type).
The museum is run as a non-governmental organization and registered charity but is sponsored by the Ministry of Defence.
What there is to see: As you arrive you can already see some of the museum's largest exhibits, which are on display in the open air. These include a sleek VC-10 (a former passenger airliner that was converted into a military cargo/tanker plane) and a much more squat looking C-130 Hercules transport plane. These are parked to the east of the car park. The entrance and the main visitor centre, however, are to the west.
Beyond this are yet more planes on open-air display, including a Hawker Siddeley Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft. On certain special days, access is possible to see the inside of this plane (for a 5 GBP fee), but that wasn't the case when I was there (in late December 2017).
Of the different hangars housing the indoor exhibits, the one called Test Flight is the closest to the Nimrod and visitor centre. It is also the most unusual from an aviation point of view, as it is here you get to see some unique and extreme prototype planes. This includes a few fabulously weird designs such as the silver needle of the Bristol type 188, a high-speed experimental jet (nicknamed “flaming pencil”), or the totally bizarre Gloster Meteor F8 prone-position cockpit test plane. The latter was to test an alternative to pilots' normal sitting position with a view to making higher G-forces more tolerable (the idea was soon abandoned).
Amongst the other planes in this hangar are also early models of what later became the Harrier “jump jet” and especially the plane that is the pride of the museum: the only complete specimen of the legendary TSR-2
plane (the only other survivor, on display at IMW Duxford
, is a much less complete airframe of the same type). This highly ambitious design of a supersonic reconnaissance and nuclear strike aircraft was controversially cancelled (in great haste) in the mid-1960s, a fact which is still lamented to this day by many a British aircraft enthusiast.
Given the TSR-2's Cold-War specifications it could just as well have been part of the museum's semi-separate National Cold War Exhibition, which is next door and from a dark-tourism perspective forms the core of the Cosford site. It is certainly by far its most interesting part.
From an aviation point of view the star exhibits in the Cold War Exhibition are the three V-bombers
, one each of a Vickers “Valiant”, a Handley Page “Victor” and the legendary Avro (later Hawker Siddeley) “Vulcan”. These were the jet-powered British nuclear bombers of the early Cold War
during the 1950s and 60s. The Valiant and Victor on display are in the white anti-flash coat of paint that makes them quite dazzling. You can also peek inside through open doors – and inside it is dark green that is the dominant colour.
The “Vulcan” on display is in the classic green-and-grey camouflage colours that these planes wore in their latter days. The Vulcan
was retired from active service only in 1984 (though a few remained airworthy and one was kept in that state as an air-show attraction until 2015). Apart from being of a highly distinctive (almost all-wing) design, the Vulcan is also famous for having seen action in the 1982 Falklands War
, namely in the daring “Operation Black Buck
” (though this was a conventional bombing raid, namely on the airfield in Stanley
, the capital of the Falklands
, then occupied by Argentina
). The bomb bay of the Vulcan on display here is open so you can look inside – in addition there's a screen mounted inside that shows Vulcans in flight (giving clear visual evidence of how dirty the exhaust fumes of these planes were!).
Another celebrated British-designed plane on display here is the interceptor fighter “Lightning” – daringly displayed hanging vertically from the ceiling as if taking off like a rocket. There are plenty more planes densely packed across the floors of the museum and hanging from the ceiling, but most are less noteworthy ... except perhaps the US
-built F-111 – the plane that was controversially procured instead of the cancelled TSR-2 (see above). A few enemy planes of the Cold War
era are on display too, most notably a Soviet
MiG-21, but others are only represented through models.
In addition to planes, there are also several missiles
and air-drop nuclear bombs
(well, their casings at least) on display, ranging from the first-ever deployed British thermonuclear bomb (quite a chunky design) to the later standard WE.177 (a much smaller and sleeker design), which was the mainstay British A-bomb
right until the late 1990s – when this was withdrawn from the RAF
in 1998, this left Britain
with only a submarine-based nuclear deterrent.
The latter is represented in the museum by an old “Polaris
” missile (the predecessor of the current SLBM system “Trident”), which is displayed in sections and with an additional warhead cut open so you can see one of its MIRVs inside. Several other missiles are to be seen here too, including an early intermediate-range nuclear missile, the US-built “Thor”. There's also a specimen of the British-designed air-launched nuclear missile “Blue Steel” on display by its carrier plane (the Vulcan). Blue Steel was a development programme that suffered the same fate as the TSR-2 plane, namely of being cancelled in favour of a competing system bought in from the USA
(in this case the “Skybolt”, of which one is also on display here).
Naturally, various non-nuclear, i.e. conventional weapons are on display too, ranging from air-to-air missiles to heavy machine guns mounted on helicopters and so on. The modern age of so-called “asymmetrical” warfare is covered by the display of a remote-controlled bomb-disposal robot designed to deal with with terrorist bombs.
The subsequent escalation into the global MAD
doctrine and the growing threat of a Third World War
are described, including the Cuba
Crisis, but also – perhaps more remarkably (for a military museum) – the British anti-nuke and peace movement
is given ample space in the exhibition too. Covered too are reconnaissance and spying as well as civil defence measures.
A series of display cabinets and panels running the length of the connecting bridge from the front part of the museum to the rear, is devoted to contrasting East vs West
not in terms of military hardware and strategies, but in terms of ideology, politics, media, sport, the arts, and everyday life. A lot of propaganda features here, naturally (including some fine specimens in Soviet socialist-realist
style!). But arguably you could claim that the museum has a slightly propagandistic slant itself, especially when it couples the “us against them” approach with good-bad word pairs such as “democracy – totalitarianism”.
There are also special sub-exhibitions on the topic of the space race
(which had its roots in Cold-War military competition, of course) and non-nuclear wars
and armed conflicts across the globe, with a special emphasis given to the Vietnam War
. And there's a special section about Berlin
, covering in particular the Berlin
Airlift and the Berlin Wall
A museum shop is also located within the Cold War Exhibition hall and offers the usual array of souvenirs, brochures and plastic plane model kits.
There are a couple of additional hangars, one houses the “War in the Air
” section, and is mostly about WW1
aviation and warfare. This includes some of the alleged “wonder weapons” the Nazis
developed in Germany
in the latter half of WWII, such as the early jet aircraft Me-262 and the curious egg-shaped rocket-plane Me-163. An especially dark type of plane featured here as well is the Japanese
“Ohka”, a specially-designed kind of kamikaze
Finally there is also “Hangar 1
”, in which a wide-ranging assortment of aircraft is on display including many civilian ones but also military. A special section in one corner features the Nazi German “retaliation weapons” ('Vergeltungswaffe') of the V1 and V2
as well as a series of less well-known early missile designs, including one, called Rheintochter R1, with wooden wings! I don't think I had ever seen missiles partly made from wood before!
An interesting section in the civilian aviation part is about research into plane crashes, in particular of the British “Comet” jet airliner of the 1950s, which suffered from a type of material fatigue that wasn't well understood at the time. The hangar also features a collection of aircraft engines. And a kind of novelty item in this hangar, finally, is a “1:1 scale model”, namely of a Spitfire plane (what else).
All in all
, while the focus is naturally on aircraft and associated hardware, the museum also features plenty of dark history to warrant a visit as a dark tourist. The Cold War
is the prime theme here and is covered from all angles, not just military, but also politically and culturally, with a slight bias towards Britain
, naturally, but covering the topic more comprehensively than other war-related museums in Europe. Recommended!
between Shifnal and Albrighton in Shropshire, England, Great Britain
. The nearest larger cities are Wolverhampton some 10 miles (16 km) to the south-east, and Birmingham another 12 miles (20 km) further south-east still. London
, home of the other branch of the RAF Museum, is some 120 miles (200 km) away.
Access and costs: relatively easy, at least by car; free (but parking charges apply).
Details: access by car is relatively easy by way of the M54, which branches off the main north-south motorway M6 north of Walsall and goes west towards Telford (where it merges with the A5 towards Shrewsbury). Leave the M54 at exit 3. The RAF Museum is well signposted from there.
If you're reliant on public transport, you can get a train to Cosford's own little station on the West Midlands Line that operates regional trains between Birmingham and Shrewsbury. Trains are typically hourly and take a good half hour from Birmingham New Street station (and a similar amount of time from Shrewsbury too). Note, though, that from the station it's a ca. 15-minute walk: first pass under the railway bridge and then continue westwards along the road that runs parallel to the tracks (no footpath – so watch out for traffic!). Keep going until the planes come into view. You can't miss it.
For cyclists, the museum is conveniently located right by the National Cycle Route 81. The most flamboyant way of getting there would be flying in – which is possible thanks to the adjacent RAF runway (but this must be pre-arranged with RAF Air Traffic Control).
Admission to the museum as such is free, but there are charges for parking (4 GBP for a maximum of 3 hours, 5 GBP for 3-7 hours – use the pay-and-display machines provided).
Opening times: daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (in winter, between November and February, the museum closes an hour earlier); last entry an hour before closing time.
depends a bit on how much you are into aviation and its technology and history. Real plane enthusiasts and war history buffs can probably spend an entire day here. Those more interested in just the Cold War
historical aspects can probably do with as little two hours or less.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
nothing in the immediate vicinity, but if you have a car, a few other places are within relatively easy driving distance, including the National Memorial Arboretum
ca. 30 miles (50 km) to the east, Coventry
45 miles (75 km) to the south-east, or Hack Green
, 30 miles (50 km) to the north, or even Liverpool
, which is a good 60 miles (100 km) north of Cosford.
For more places further afield still see under Great Britain
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The location of RAF Cosford is not in the most touristy of regions of Britain, but nearby Birmingham (the UK's second—largest city, no less) has gained some reputation as a finely redeveloped city centre in recent years and is certainly well worth a visit for a city break. Liverpool and Manchester are also both within a couple of hours' drive to the north.
Those rather in search of beautiful scenery can head instead west and south-west into Wales, e.g. to the Snowdonia and Brecon Beacons National Parks.
- RAF Cosford 01 - open-air plane display
- RAF Cosford 02 - VC-10
- RAF Cosford 03 - Hercules
- RAF Cosford 04 - Nimrod
- RAF Cosford 05 - timeline
- RAF Cosford 06 - Test Flight hangar
- RAF Cosford 07 - weird designs
- RAF Cosford 08 - TSR-2
- RAF Cosford 09 - on-board electronics
- RAF Cosford 10 - Big Brother is watching you
- RAF Cosford 11 - Valiant
- RAF Cosford 12 - a peek inside
- RAF Cosford 13 - Victor
- RAF Cosford 14 - Maid Marian
- RAF Cosford 15 - Vulcan
- RAF Cosford 16 - Vulcan bomb bay
- RAF Cosford 17 - Lightning
- RAF Cosford 18 - models of Soviet competitors
- RAF Cosford 19 - Blue Steel
- RAF Cosford 20 - early generation thermonuclear bomb
- RAF Cosford 21 - mainstay British nuclear weapon
- RAF Cosford 22 - not unopposed
- RAF Cosford 23 - give peace a chance
- RAF Cosford 24 - Polaris missile in sections
- RAF Cosford 25 - Polaris warhead
- RAF Cosford 26 - conventional death machine
- RAF Cosford 27 - insights
- RAF Cosford 28 - more planes
- RAF Cosford 29 - division
- RAF Cosford 30 - East vs West
- RAF Cosford 31 - ideological division
- RAF Cosford 32 - Soviet propaganda
- RAF Cosford 33 - space age
- RAF Cosford 34 - Berlin Wall
- RAF Cosford 35 - bomb-disposal robot
- RAF Cosford 36 - sell-out
- RAF Cosford 37 - WWII hangar
- RAF Cosford 38 - rocket-egg
- RAF Cosford 39 - V1
- RAF Cosford 40 - V2
- RAF Cosford 41 - missile with wooden wings
- RAF Cosford 42 - Kamikaze Ohka
- RAF Cosford 43 - Hangar 1
- RAF Cosford 44 - civilian aviation
- RAF Cosford 45 - air disaster research
- RAF Cosford 46 - fabled British jet engine
- RAF Cosford 47 - the unavoidable Spitfire, in a life-size Airfix version