Lorna Hogg examines our fascination with steam engines which is no longer the preserve of schoolboys and ‘anoraks’…
Our love of trains has never gone away, and they’re increasingly popular as they become faster, sleeker and smoother. We still love steam trains, however, as witnessed by the tens of thousands of people who turned out to see The Flying Scotsman’s return to the tracks. These days, rail museums are popular attractions and increasing numbers enjoy steam train rides, and volunteer or fund-raise to restore old engines. If any more inspiration is needed -we have some world class engines and rail museums close at hand.
In the English Midlands, Derby’s Roundhouse was built in 1839 as a repair shed for steam locos. It was at the centre of Derby’s extensive railway works, spanning the 1830s to 1960s, in the city where three railway companies united to create Midland Railways in 1844. The Roundhouse, the oldest surviving turning shed in the world, allowed sixteen locos to be repaired and fitted with new parts, thanks to a central turntable allowing them to be moved in and out of the building individually.
Some 4,500 people once worked on the original 20 acres of the Railway Works, where thousands of locos and carriages were built. The 1960s saw major changes, however, and by the 1980s the Loco Works buildings were empty and derelict. Derby College has developed the site, restoring The Roundhouse, which is now a public space.
However, many of the of the old railway buildings remain, including the Tri – Junction Railway Station, where you could even buy tickets for travelling dogs! Visit the comfortable Midland Hotel, built for First Class passengers. It was said that conversation here centred on hunting and shooting, whilst in the nearby pubs, it was about shunting and hooting! Wander around the area’s old pubs, administrative buildings and the railway village. It remains a popular residential area, retaining front doors painted in claret red, the colours of the old Midland Railway.
You can take a guided 45 minute tour around the Roundhouse, and old engine shed, ending with a cuppa, for £6. Group tours are also welcomed. Check www.visitderby.co.uk for booking details and available dates, or book online. Tel. 0044 (0) 1332 643411
STEAM, based in the old railway yards of Great Western Railways in Swindon, Wiltshire, has so much to see that at least three hours visiting time is recommended. Unsurprising, as the history of Great Western Railway life is reflected, and you can experience it through displays and audiovisuals, which include input from ex- rail workers and some hands-on experiences.
Walk down from the modern Swindon station, past the old railway village, where many workers lived. Follow in their footsteps under the tunnel, into the yards,where 12,000 people once worked. Reconstructions, with figures based on real site workers, plus original equipment give an idea of the complexity of the work involved. Life in the works, from welding, assembly, painting, fit out and administration can be experienced here, with 400,000 artefacts, plus regular friendly ex-worker volunteers. Discover women’s war work here, how DIRT money got its name, why workers often became deaf and how all equipment, from pen nibs and string net luggage racks to rail sleepers was made here.
You can ‘drive’ on the cab of a train simulator, and practice changing signals (which are heavy!) and points. Descend into an inspection pit, and walk under the engine Caerphilly Castle, before trying out one of Queen Victoria’s sumptuous royal saloons – and a 1930s buffet car.
The City of Truro engine is here, along with the King George V, as well as The Caerphilly Castle, which ran on the famous Cheltenham Flyer service. Also, if you suspect that one of your ancestors worked here, visit the Wall of Names or check the extensive research resources. Don’t miss a visit to the excellent onsite cafe.
A Day Ticket costs £8.50, £6.80 for seniors. Don’t forget that the Swindon Designer Discount Village is also based in the old railway yards, next door to STEAM.
The National Railway Museum at York has 300 years of railway history and 1,000,000 rail related objects – and that’s just for starters. This is home to some of the world’s most famous engines. The 1938 steam engine speed (125mph) world record breaker Mallard is here along with the iconic Shinkansen, the 1974 Japanese Bullet Train. Art Deco designed classic the opulent Duchess of Hamilton and an early Eurostar are all on hand. There are knowledgeable and friendly guides, plus talks, displays and exhibitions to enjoy. This is also the normal base of The Flying Scotsman, which is now back at part-time work on steam trips. Get details of appearances and trips on www.flyingscotsman.org.uk
York’s old railway engineering sheds are filled with carriages, platforms, history and artefacts ranging through signage and nameplates, signalling, knobs, knockers and uniforms, all detailing life on the railways. You won’t go hungry here, with choices including The Dining Car Restaurant, (set in a carriage), and the Mallard Cafe – plus knowledgeable and friendly guides throughout.
Access to railway carriages is a major attraction, and the world’s finest collection of royal carriages is open for exploration. Sample Queen Victoria’s `Palace on Wheels’, and King Edward VII’s smoking saloon and a 1941 Royal Carriage. Try First, Second and Third Class carriages. ‘Travel’ in the Bullet Train, see a replica of Stephenson’s Rocket and stand alongside the massive Chinese engine, at 15 ft., the largest single unit loco in the museum. Equally impressive is the shop, with a wide choice of books, illustrations – and Hornby trainsets. Admission is free
We’ve all heard of Stephenson’s Rocket. Fewer people, however, may be aware that his next design: Planet was created in 1830 to run on the new Liverpool to Manchester Railway where it covered 50 kms in one hour.
Now you can ride on a replica Planet, for a short distance on that original railway, part of which runs through the Manchester Science Museum site. It is the home of this version of Planet, which recently had a television moment. The engine featured in the TV series Victoria, about the Queen and Prince Albert. Entry to the museum is free
Ireland on line
There are also plenty for ‘steam heads’ on this island. Take the very modern Bangor train from Belfast to Cultra, to the Ulster Museum of Transport. This is a first class museum housing the Irish Railway Collection. There is a carriage from Ireland’s first railway running between Dublin and Kingstown in 1834. However, the star of the collection is undoubtedly Maedb, the fastest and most powerful train built in Ireland at Inchicore.
Just as interesting are the carriages and engines used on narrow gauge and industrial railways, plus the intriguing transport that moved our great grandparents. Plenty of memorabilia is on display here, from nameplates to interactive displays. As they say here, visiting museums is hungry work, and the Ballycultra and Midland Tearooms can help with hearty, homemade food.
See www.nmni.com for more information.
The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland holds regular steam excursions as well as diesel trips – but enquire early, as they fill up quickly.
The Flying Scotsman fans should go to www.flyingscotsman.org.uk for details of her touring season.
Steam Dreams at www.CathedralsExpress.co.uk offers a wide range of day trips on the The Flying Scotsman – but these sell out quickly.
Cathedrals Express also organise rail trips to Ireland. The 2017 trip from 14th –22nd June takes in Dublin, Killarney, Westport with a Belfast option. There are steam sections and some optional steam trips with Merlin expected to take part. Prices from £1795 pp. Single supplements apply. Contact Cathedrals Express for full details.