Britain’s National Railway Museum in York is huge and better than that, it is free and indoors, so exploring the monsters of the steam age is pleasant whatever the weather.
I wanted to see, particularly, two great giants of the steam age. The first is the Flying Scotsman, which has been fully restored to working order. The second is the Mallard, a brilliant blue streak of lightning, which holds the steam locomotion speed record.
Although the first of these beauties is now owned by the Museum, it does not live there, so my first wish meets with disappointment. Instead, the Flying Scotsman is out on tour on the main lines of Britain, showing off its puff and stuff to adoring audiences. On this visit to UK, I will not be able to catch up with it, so that thrill will have to await a future journey.
The Mallard no longer runs, more is the pity, but it is fully restored to its original livery and lives in the Museum’s Great Hall. It is a beautiful art-deco object, not just for its engineering, but also from a purely aesthetic point of view. It is hard to imagine a more perfect expression of speed. The smooth aerodynamic body of the engine barely contains the unexpressed power and energy that drove it to 126 mph in 1938. No dull black for this greyhound of the rails. Instead, it has been restored to its original London and North Eastern Railway paint scheme of rich garter blue with bright red wheels.
Steps lead up to a platform where we can see into the original cab. It’s as if the driver and his fireman have just stepped away, for a tin pot of tea is brewing above the boiler. The small cab is a mass of copper pipes, dials and levers, open to most of the elements. At full speed it must have been a roaring cacophony. Although trains of the time were not supposed to run at speeds greater than 90 mph, the Mallard frequently pulled its luxurious passenger carriages at 100 mph to keep up with its pressing timetables, especially on its regular non-stop run from London to Edinburgh.
The record-breaking driver thought he could have achieved 130 mph if he had not had to slow down for a permanent way restriction to 15 mph just north of Grantham. The massive locomotive is 70 ft long and weighs 165 tons, including the tender, it’s seventh. Mallard covered almost one and a half million miles (2.4 million km) before it was retired in 1963.
There are many more classic trains at the Museum, including a reproduction of Stephenson’s original Rocket, a bullet train from Japan, a train that looks suspiciously like the Hogwart’s Express and another with a bell and cowcatcher that surely must be North American. Information plaques are sometimes hard to find and without walking around a whole huge train, I sometimes just stand and admire and skip the details. I was fascinated by an ex-Southern Railway Merchant Navy Class engine sectioned to show the workings of a steam locomotive.
When train travel was beginning to look a little old fashioned in the 1970s, British Rail, then the operator of the UK’s railway system, introduced High Speed Trains (HST). Their streamlined look and distinctive wedge-shaped nose were supposed to be a stop gap while better technology was developed, but the design was so successful that the trains are still in use today. The locomotive in the Museum is named for its designer Sir Kenneth Grange and is painted in its original colours of blue and yellow, which led to its nickname – The Flying Banana. The train also holds the world diesel locomotive speed record at 148 mph (238 kph).
Over in the Station Hall, connected by an underground passage, it feels as though a train has just pulled into the platform. Union Jack bunting decorates the station and one can almost imagine passengers descending from the trains, or porters unloading their baggage. On one platform, there’s even a quite good buffet: no bacon butties to be seen so I settle for a healthy avocado toastie.
My last stop is to the Royal Train, where Queen Victoria’s original carriage is in a state of constant restoration. It’s been a huge job and the work is ongoing. On the outside the top rails have been regilded and the sides of the carriage are being stripped down to the bare metal and several coats of new paint applied: primer, base and the first coat of gloss. I learn that it will be some time before the varnish is applied and if the carriage was being restored for outside running it would require up to 11 coats. Fortunately for the restorers, the carriage can’t be moved for safety reasons, so a couple will do. The bottom panels are in their original London and North Western Railway livery of carmine lake, which looks more like purple, and flake white, a creamy colour leading to the nickname ‘plum and spilt milk.’ The last time the carriage was restored 50 years ago, shellac was used, which has crackled badly. This time a non-yellowing acrylic resin will be used which should last out most of our lifetimes.
In a special area to one side of the museum is a nice model railway behind protective glass, with period trains running on an automated schedule through classic countryside and stopping at quaint stations. As the day was very chilly, I did not venture out to the Miniature Railway, which runs around the South Yard. Perhaps just as well, as there were several large groups of schoolchildren present, queuing for their rides.
One day, I hope I can bring my Canadian grandson, who is fascinated by trains. It will be a visit to cherish. We may even see an entirely reimagined Central Hall which has been promised, though delayed by the pandemic.
Getting there: The National Railway Museum, Leeman Road, York YO26 4XJ – directions to the museum are clearly signposted on all approaches to the city. The museum is a 10-minute walk from the centre of town, and the route is well signposted. Admission is free. Accessible parking for blue badge holders is free, and is located outside the main entrance. Visitor parking is on Leeman Road—a few minutes’ walk away from the main entrance—and costs £10 per day. York is about a four-hour drive north of London. A train from King’s Cross to York takes about two hours. The museum is a well-signposted five-minute walk from York station.
WOKE NEWS UPDATE: The National Railway Museum will investigate steam trains for links to slavery as forces behind the expansion of colonial power are readdressed, according to The Daily Telegraph. Prof Jonathan Finch of the University of York, who is leading the project, said: “The relationship between steam power and global trade is complex. Steam engines replaced wind power on the plantations and waterpower in British cotton mills, steamboats transported raw materials and goods around the globe. Dr Oliver Betts, the research lead at the National Railway Museum, said: “… through projects such as this, we are examining Britain’s colonial past to look again at the stories we tell, the voices we represent, and the challenges we face in presenting complex, hitherto untold stories to the public.”
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