Travel: Swat spot: Smoke gets in their eyes: Britain's golden age of railways never looked, or sounded, so good, says Jonathan Glancey after a visit to York's National Railway Museum

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The Independent Travel
EDWARD, in a blue anorak, is scrutinising the movement of a big green engine being turned through 360 degrees. His parents, both dressed in two- tone grey tracksuits, are clearly bored. 'Come on, Edward,' huffs Dad. 'Oh, come on, Edward,' puffs Mum. 'Don't you want to go to the shop?' asks Dad. Edward doesn't. 'We want a sandwich; don't you?' asks Mum. Edward doesn't. As this is 10.30 in the morning, it's unlikely that the family has had a chance to digest breakfast. Nevertheless Mum and Dad are thinking of spending, sitting and eating, while Edward has eyes only for the graceful green London and South Western Railway 4-4-0.

Elsewhere in the museum, a brother and sister of nursery age are captivated by the comings and goings of miniature Pacifics and tank-engines as they rattle their way around a veteran O-gauge model railway. Mum keeps saying, 'Look at the old car, look at the old car', pointing repeatedly at a clumsy model of a 1936 MG TA in the car park of the Lilliputian station. The children insist they want to look at the trains - this is a railway museum after all - so Mum turns to Dad and talks to him about cars instead.

These family scenes are enacted the length and breadth of the two great halls of the National Railway Museum: while boys and girls take a genuine interest in old locomotives and carriages, their car- mad, trainer-footed, leisure-age parents head instinctively for the museum shop and Brief Encounter cafe. Parents are clearly an embarrassment; Edward and gang would surely like to shunt them into a quiet siding outside, while they explore the history of Britain's railways.

Given that the golden age of British rail ended long ago and that the present government remains eager to turn what remains into a privatised joke, children steaming around the National Railway Museum display a remarkably keen interest in a form of transport that many of them never use.

Every day this summer, children sit gathered around the great red wheels of Mallard, the museum's star exhibit, and listen, enthralled, to a well-told tale of how, 55 years ago, this Gresley Pacific became the world's fastest steam locomotive. . The train's exploits are related by a 'funny uncle' character, using techniques drawn from pantomine and Reverend W Awdry's Thomas the Tank Engine.

When I was a boy and the railway museum was located near Clapham Junction, we didn't need funny uncles. We had our Ian Allan books, and they told us everything we needed to know: Mallard's tractive effort, weight (with and without tender) and the diameter and stroke (measured in inches) of her three cylinders. The story of the locomotive's famous run was told by its driver, Jo Doddington, via a scratchy old sound recording.

I found that experience thrilling, but then I could take the Tube up to King's Cross and see Mallard's sister locomotives still in charge of long maroon expresses that thundered and whistled their way through Gasworks and Copenhagen Tunnels, bound for Leeds, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh. I'm not too sure what children make of Mallard today. Immaculate in a way that locomotives working for a living never were, the big, blue record- breaker has nothing to do with their lives; it can only be the stuff of fairy-tale.

Although diverting and a rich source of historical study for schoolchildren, the National Railway Museum presents a rather fabulous view of Britain's railway history. There is no soot or sweat. Nothing is made of the fact that locomotives such as Mallard, and the dozens of magnificent steam, diesel and electric engines on display here, were products of great railway centres such as Doncaster, Crewe and Swindon, the industrial hearts of which have been torn out in an age of 'enterprise'. Passengers who once read books on non-stop trains have given way to 'customers' who eat non-stop on trains that pretend to be planes.

Children can, however, sense the esteem in which Britain's railways were once held, by watching Japanese video monitors that relay old television films, publicity documentaries and cinema newsreels throughout the museum. Press a button, watch and listen as grainy films underscored by the flattened 'a's' of pre- war narrators show you 'the Golden Errow' on her 'last lep to Peris'.

See a Royal Scot ('British craftsmanship', the commentator bugles, 'has made her a thing of beauty and power') being loaded with coal from an 'autometic' hopper; here she is again over the 'esh pits'. And here is the Night Ferry easing out of Victoria station, accompanied by a 'whiff of cigar smoke and sophisticated scent'. When I last rode the Night Ferry in 1980 - her last year - she stank of lager, roll-ups and sweat.

Nevertheless, the National Railway Museum, if several wheels removed from the real world of trains and their operation, is both entertaining and educational. Children seem riveted by the minutiae of railways: they like peering into the lavatories of Victorian carriages, operating points and signals, peering at Laddie (a stuffed pooch who once collected for railway orphans at Wimbledon station), clambering on to the footplates of glistening locomotives and riding up and down in trains pushed and pulled by replicas of Stephenson's Rocket and Gooch's Iron Duke. The Museum's Education Service works closely with schools and tailors visits to suit the interests and aptitudes of different groups and classes.

This being Britain, the museum attracts children from six to 60. Mixed in with the summer hordes of under-11s are those visitors reluctantly forced into long trousers, who examine exhibits in greater depth than a pathologist performing an autopsy on a murder victim. They are stalwart members of the duffle bag, Thermos and fishpaste-sandwich brigade - only these days they come armed with winking, bleeping video cameras rather than the Brownie 127s they owned in the short- trousered days of steam. With these they record nuts, bolts and rivets from never more than about six inches away.

Without the atmosphere of a live, working railway, and because it fails to explain what happened to the towns and people who made the railways great, only to be abandoned in an age of 14-lane motorways and 44-ton lorries, the National Railway Museum is able to tell only part of the story. In its latest guise, however, it makes an excellent day out for children. And, yes, there are adequate eating and shopping facilities for parents.

National Railway Museum, Leeman Road, York; Monday-Saturday, 10am to 6pm; Sunday 11am to 6pm; last admission 5pm. Admission: adults pounds 3.95, children pounds 2, concessions pounds 2.60. Library by appointment only. Telephone 0904 621261.

(Photograph omitted)