site unseen Darlington Railway Centre and Museum
Friday 10 May 1996
Try again. Anyone not carrying around a piece of Darlington on their person is probably in financial difficulties.
Alice in Wonderland stuff? Far from it. To prove my point, just take out a pounds 5 note and examine its features. The Queen is on one side, certainly, but on the other is a portrait of the great inventor, George Stephenson. In the corner is the Skerne Bridge, Darlington, which on 27 September 1825 carried his "Locomotion" on its valiant passage between Stockton and Darlington.
Driven by George Stephenson himself, "Locomotion" hauled a train of 34 waggons weighing 90 tons for the grand distance of 18 miles. It was truly a journey which transformed both Britain and the rest of the world. Nothing could ever be the same again.
Appropriately enough, Darlington is on the North Eastern coast line which hurtles passengers between London and Newcastle both speedily and in comfort. The station is typically Victorian in its use of glass and iron - not as superb as York to the south but still worth a look.
But the station in Darlington which is a must lies on the other side of the town. Walk through the town centre, admiring the covered market, old Town Hall and Italianate clock tower built by Alfred Waterhouse, later to be famous for building Manchester Town Hall and the Natural History Museum. Head down Northgate. Signposts will then lead you to the Railway Centre and Museum.
The Centre is housed in a charming little building of 1842 which is still used by British Rail, making it the oldest working station in Britain. The museum appeals to a wider circle of people than pure train buffs. Art students regularly come here, for example, to sketch the elegant shapes of the early trains, attracted here less by utilitarian than aesthetic considerations.
"Locomotion" is naturally the star exhibit, along with several colleagues such as the "Derwent" of 1845. But what I find most appealing is the enormous paraphernalia which British railways spawned: the old entrance hall, ticket office and collector's box, the posters and uniforms, the enamel advertising signs. Down to the tiniest detail, everything has a sense of pride and efficiency. The recent farce over the incorrect timetables demonstrate that in this case at least, they really were the good old days.
A short way from the Museum is the Skerne Bridge itself, the original survivor of George Stephenson's 1825 journey. It is a bridge to be treasured, even by those without access to a pounds 5 note.
Darlington Railway Centre and Museum, North Road Station, Darlington.
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