As part of its publicity branding the National Railway Museum boasts that it’s the biggest railway museum in the world. They sell themselves short; it must surely be the biggest and the best. Of course, Britain has an unparalleled heritage in its railways but York has collared the cream, a staggering collection from the quaintest ‘Puffing Billy’ loco to a Japanese Bullet train, from opulent Royal carriages (I want one, now) to the ‘muck trucks’ that dug out the Channel Tunnel.
There’s so much to see that you can easily set aside half a day to explore it all – and that’s without being a child dreaming of becoming an engine driver or a train-spotting anorak. Oh, and it’s all gloriously free.
Begin in the cathedral-sized Great Hall to view the NRMs most spectacular locos, arrayed around a turntable, painted and polished to within in inch of their brass nameplates. There are gorgeous green vintage engines with ‘Top Hat’ funnels straight out of The Railway Children or The Titchfield Thunderbolt. Here is the super-sleek Mallard*; its streamlined Sir Nigel Gresley design, inspired by Bugatti still looks futuristic 75 years after it raced up the East Coast line between Peterborough and York to set the world speed steam record of 126mph that still stands today.
For four quid, you can jump in a pod that shakes you up to simulate that trip with a computer generated video. Fine, but I rather miss the previous pod that took you into the drivers cab for the rush from London to Brighton in four minutes; grainy black and white film but real.
Mallard is big as well as beautiful but if you want really big then the giant of the NRM collection is the monstrous Chinese Engine, 15ft high and 93ft long dwarfing all. In the 1930s twenty four of these brutes were commissioned by the Chinese National Railway and built at the Vulcan Foundry in Newton le Willows in Lancashire.
If you remember Stephenson’s Rocket, the Rainhill Trials and all that railway stuff from school days, then here is a working replica (the original is in the Science Museum) complete with a cutaway of the steam valve to explain how it all works.
The jewel in the crown of the collection isn’t currently here. The iconic Flying Scotsman, that ran daily between London and Edinburgh, and was the first train to reach 100mph, was purchased by the NRM in 2004 and has been under protracted restoration more or less ever since. It’s now in Bury scheduled for completion in 2015.
The Warehouse leading off the Grand Hall is a vast and extraordinary storeroom containing every kind of artifact ever used on the railways not just the station signs, engine name-plates and ticket machines you might expect but railway crockery, silver tea sets, and any number of curiosities from wind gauges to chamber pots
The Station Hall houses the must-see Palaces on Wheels and confirms that Royalty had it pretty good. Peep into Queen Victoria’s sumptuous saloon or Edward VII’s lavish smoking room. George V was apparently the first to take a bath aboard as his kingdom passed by. We’re told that Queen Elizabeth’s first carriage was more restrained in keeping with post-war austerity; it still looks pretty comfortable to me.
Take a break for tea in the Mallard café in the Great Hall or on the platform in the Dining Car Restaurant in the Station Hall. You can even get married here.
There’s a model railway beyond any home modeler’s fantasy and a mail train to re-imagine the Great Train Robbery, night sleepers and an outdoor miniature railway, some 200 vehicles in all, too much to take in. For serious railway nuts there’s the library and archive, a vast art and photographic collection, endless engineering drawings and timetables.
For the rest of us, it’s the Museum shop and the cute little Road Train that shuttles back and forth between museum and city centre, or cross the road to York railway station, a majestic building in its own right, for today’s high speed trains North and South on the East Coast line that saw all those historic records.
*Between 31 January and 28 February 2014, Mallard will be on display at the National Railway Museum, Shildon, thereafter it will be back in the Great Hall of the NRM in York.
Jill Turton - www.squidbeak.co.uk