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The five best geeky days out in the UK

28 September 2016 ( 16 July 2019 )

Some of the UK's top sites of technology, invention and creation make excellent geeky days out. Here are some of the best.

Air Defence Radar Museum, Norfolk
Air Defence Radar Museum, Norfolk, photo by Bill Priddy

RAF Radar Museum Norfolk

The Air Defence Radar Museum (ADRM) occupies the site of the world’s longest, continuously operating radar installation. Opened in 1938, RAF Neatishead was a key link in the radar chain, deployed successfully against the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. 

It became the nerve centre during WWII, scanning the waves for incoming nukes. Today you can poke at the same equipment RAF operators used to detect hostile blips, building three dimensional scans using left and right controls - no PCs – and view, in real-time, the maelstrom that is civilian air space over the UK today. 

There’s other technical gear here, too: a section of an iconic radar golf ball shield, intricate electronic valves, the cockpit of a Jaguar ground-attack craft, and an (allegedly) disarmed Bristol Bloodhound surface-to-air missile. All this and experts are on hand too, who’ll explain what stood between the Nazis and Great Britain.

Find out more: RAF Radar Museum Norfolk

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Spaceguard Center

Telescope Outbuilding at Space Guard Centre, photo by SA Mathieson

The Spaceguard Centre, Powy

Spaceguard is the inspiration of a single man: Jonathan Tate, an ex-army officer specialising in surface to air missiles. It’s part of a global effort tracking Near Earth Objects (NEOs): 100-150 tonnes of material hits the Earth’s atmosphere every day - most of it is harmless dust that becomes shooting stars. 

Others have had bigger impacts, such as the 2013 meteorite over Chelyabinsk that injured 1,600 people, and the 1908 Tunguska event in Siberia that leveled hundreds of square kilometres of forest.

Spaceguard houses two large robotically controlled telescopes, used by Tate to confirm other people’s NEO spots. A tour of this one-man outpost high in Powys, with Tate, takes in telescopes, fragments - including bits from Chelyabinsk - and enough data to ensure it won’t just be the younger members of your party who leave wide eyed. The most startling fact? Spaceguard has relied on donations and private funding.

Find out more: The Spaceguard Centre

Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park, photo by Gavin Clarke

Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes

Think Bletchley Park and you’ll think World-War II code breaking and Alan Turing. That’s because the encrypted communications used by the Luftwaffe, containing thousands of messages about flight operations and targets, had been hacked by code-breakers of Bletchley Park, just outside Milton Keynes. 

Bletchley sifted through 20,000 Axis messages to reveal crucial details on German air force deployments during the Battle of Britain and the location of the killer battleship the Bismarck, which was sunk after a Royal Navy operation. 

Bletchley Park witnessed the first computers ever used to hack crypto - the Tunny and Colossus - and was run by an army of 12,000 staff working in shifts around the clock. Two-thirds were women, including many WRENs operating those Colossi.

Find out more: Bletchley Park

Falkirk Wheel

Falkirk Wheel, photo by Bill Ray

The Falkirk Wheel, Stirlingshire

When is a wheel not a wheel? When it’s a lift. Meet the world’s one-of-a-kind ENORMO barge-bowling bridge of Falkirk. Proving it’s not just the Victorians who can make huge structures in steel, the Falkirk Wheel can lift six canal boats 25 metres in one go, moving them from one waterway to another. 

The wheel is huge, though cunningly concealed from the car park so it emerges to dominate the landscape as one approaches on foot. 

The steel and concrete structure contains 15,000 hand-tightened bolts and one can’t help but be reminded of some Vicotrian flight of fancy as it slowly revolves to deliver 300-tonne, perfectly balanced, gondolas. When it comes to big, modern engineering, there’s not much that can compare to Falkirk Wheel.

Find out more: The Falkirk Wheel

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Thames Barrier

Thames Barrier, photo by Gavin Clarke

The Thames Barrier, London

Last time London flooded was 1953. Three hundred lives were lost, 30,000 evacuated and the damage totalled a considerable £5bn in today’s money. 

Given how London has expanded since then, the record-breaking wet winter of 2014 would have been worse had it not been for the presence of 51,000 tonnes of metal called the Thames Barrier. The barrier has been raised 174 times in the last 35 years of its life, and 50 of those took place during that three-month period of 2014.

Where the Thames Barrier stands out is in its marriage of forward-thinking design with innovative, yet practical, engineering. It’s not the biggest flood barrier in the world, but it IS the largest movable barrier. Although you can't visit the structure itself, you can go to The Thames Barrier Information Centre. The surrounding area is a mix of commercial and residential buildings, but head south on the Green Chain Walk and you pass through woods - once popular with highwaymen - leading up to Charlton House and Park.

Find out more:

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The Geek's Guide to Britain is The Register's travel guide to the UK's best places of invention, creation and technological wonder. Featuring 26 destinations in detail, plus recommendations on places to eat, shop and stay, it's the ultimate guide to a geeky day out.

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