To visit the Cobbaton Combat Collection in a small village in rural North Devon (UK), is to accept and to meet a navigational challenge. When you get to the “back of beyond” keep going and hang a left at “somewhere over the rainbow” (such are the broad vistas of the North Devon landscape). It is picture-postcard country where one would not necessarily expect a museum dedicated to the implements of man’s inhumanity to man. When you arrive, it feels like you’re a pulling into a farmyard although the three large large Nissen/Quonset huts, tank turrets and the odd sea mine, quickly put you at your ease.
It is compact, quirky and weirdly wonderful. It is a museum of the past in more ways than one having its origins in one man’s personal collection that morphed into a museum in the early 1980s. In museological terms it harks back to earlier times when “save it before it disappears – there must be a corner somewhere” took precedence over interactivity, curatorial creativity and “how do we appeal to schoolkids”. Appropriately, it is a museum that takes no prisoners in terms of expectations of the visitor. Everything is appropriately labelled but there is never a danger that the visitor is going to be talked down to. Know your stuff and this place is a treasure trove of hidden gems, tucked away in unexpected corners. Some of those gems were consciously collected – others donated by veterans looking for a home for their battlefield pickups of decades ago.
The museum covers everything from the First World War to the liberation of Kuwait in the 1990s with an emphasis on British and Canadian vehicles including tanks with the odd T34, Sherman and Centurion thrown in. But it is the random pieces, that would easily fall outside the confines of an acquisition strategy, that make this place special: a bucket of soil from the Falklands brushed off the tracks of Royal Marine snowcats when they returned from the Falklands; a wooden head likeness of an SS officer carved by a concentration camp survivor in 1945 so that he would not forget the face of a man at whose hands he had suffered; potties for use in air raid shelters, enamel plates, advertising signs and everyday objects that contextualise wartime life and the big ticket armoured fighting vehicles and weapons. It is random in the way that life is random. Alive in the sense that a collection can be an organic entity as opposed to a well-organised, disciplined but soulless experience. Stuff is tucked away everywhere with small mountains of jerry cans lining the walls. You can easily miss the odd vehicle, and especially the frame of a wartime canoe, with the end of one end of a hut blending into a restoration area with tools and bits of tanks.
The gift shop, instead of the usual corporate offerings is full of “stuff”: I was happy with a bren gun magazine and a bar of prison issue soap. Refreshments are available from a NAAFI-style van and the cake is very good. Toilets, set up like a wartime bunker, added a certain ‘je ne sais quo’! The prices, as less than £10 per person constituted a bargain. This is an old school museum in the best possible way.
Cobbaton Combat Collection
Umberleigh, Devon, UK
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G.H. Bennett is associate professor of history at Plymouth University where he has taught since 1992. He is author of more than 20 books, most on military, diplomatic and political history.