A ride behind the Flying Scotsman for a fiver... no wonder they’re calling it “the dream ticket”.
There should be plenty of takers, if the celebrity engine’s triumphant return to Scotland back in May was anything to go by. Waving crowds lined the journey from York to Edinburgh. Whole schools turned out to wave. Old ladies in curlers stood at their bedroom windows and waved. The gnomes in people’s front gardens waved. The Angel of the North waved.
To be realistic, the fiver-a-throw Scotsman ride – on offer for just over a week from next Saturday – doesn’t promise quite that level of railway razzamatazz. It will cover three-quarters of a mile on a single stretch of track at the National Railway Museum at Shildon in Co Durham.
Shildon? Surely that should be York? Well, no. Unknown to many, the museum has a North Eastern outpost between Darlington and Bishop Auckland. It pulls in more than 210,000 people a year to peer through the windows of a royal train and be dazzled by the polished glory of vintage engines. As its manager Gary Campbell says: “The National Railway Museum is effectively one station with two platforms 60 miles apart.”
Last year, the Shildon site, which next Saturday launches a nine-day “Shed Bash” festival featuring the Scotsman rides, upped its visitor numbers by an impressive 27 per cent. It’s still some way short of the three quarters of a million who throng the York site, but – keep this to yourself – the small town of Shildon has arguably played a more important role in British railway history than York.
It became the world’s first railway town after a locomotive works was set up there in the early 19th century. And the world’s first steam-hauled passenger train set off from it in 1825 on the Stockton and Darlington Railway.
Watched by 10,000 spectators, some 600 passengers sat in converted coal trucks as the train trundled along at an average speed of eight miles an hour. After reaching Darlington, it carried on to Stockton-on-Tees, preceded by a man on horseback. Those final 12 miles of the journey took over three hours: the passengers could probably have walked it faster.
These days, the train from Darlington covers the ten or so miles to Shildon in 20 minutes. It’s an unexpectedly rural journey to a quiet modern station with two shelters and half a dozen tubs of flowers.
It makes a low-key start to a visit to a town that’s often called the “Cradle of the Railways” and once boasted the UK’s biggest wagon works and Europe’s most extensive railway sidings. We’ll come to surviving relics of this illustrious industrial past, but for the moment turn left out of the station and walk five minutes to a graceful hangar-like building. It houses the museum, named Locomotion after the engine that hauled that first passenger train. Inside, you’re confronted by a row of gleaming engines, including Britain’s prototype Advanced Passenger Train from the 1970s. Designed to travel at over 150 mph, this “tilting train” was billed as “tomorrow’s train today”, but quickly became yesterday’s train after the project was abandoned. Cynics may whisper “HS2”.
Locomotion’s manager Gary Campbell leads me to a meeting room dominated by a bust of Timothy Hackworth, the man who put the town on the railway map. Sometimes called “The Father of the Locomotive”, he started building engines before his friend George Stephenson, but Stephenson’s is the name people now remember.
Campbell, in his bright red Flying Scotsman t-shirt, reckons that Locomotion is probably the North East’s biggest free attraction. “We aim to provide something for everybody,” he says. “From families to hard-core rail enthusiasts who want to talk about cubic capacity.”
The occasional exhibit label panders to these enthusiasts’ insatiable craving for technical detail. One celebrates an “eight-wheel double-bogie tender”. Another highlights a “low degree super-heated dome boiler”.
“We recently did a cosmetic restoration of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (a 1960s diesel),” says Campbell. “Over three months, there were three or four guys who came in every single day to see it.” To them, it was poetry in Locomotion.
The Shildon site was set up 11 years ago to store some of the York museum’s vast collection of railway memorabilia, the world’s biggest. The plan was to open it to the public for a couple of days a month, but extra funding, including a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, means it can now open every day.
The anticipated 30,000 – 40,000 annual visitors were soon exceeded and two years ago, 120,000 visitors turned out for a festival centring on the Mallard, the sleek 1930s engine that holds the world steam record (126 mph). It was joined by the five other surviving locos in its A4 class. Lined up together, they had the glamour of a fashion shoot.
Events officer Pam Porter points out Locomotion’s busy weekend programmes, its community involvement and its work with school groups. And there’s the forthcoming Shed Bash, which will include photography events and talks by collection curators as well as the Flying Scotsman rides, limited to 1,000 tickets a day on a first-come-first-served basis.
“The Shed Bash is inspired by trainspotting events in the Fifties and Sixties when boys with short trousers and Ian Allan books (for rail enthusiasts) would try to see as many locos in a depot shed as they could,” says Porter. “It was the days before PlayStations, when boys collected stamps and train numbers.”
Boosted by guest appearances by celebrity trains, Locomotion houses 70 engines and rolling stock from the NRM collection. On a quiet afternoon for visitors, guide Joe Randall and his colleague Kevin Allison take me round some of them. The most popular exhibit, says Randall, is probably the plush 1902 royal train used by Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. With its brown, cream and gold livery, it’s like a gentleman’s club on wheels, complete with winged armchairs, a writing desk, and the Queen’s bed with its pale pink eiderdown. The dining car is laid for a dainty afternoon tea.
In fine contrast is an 1840s coach from the Stockton and Darlington Railway. It’s like a stagecoach, with a relatively comfortable First Class compartment sandwiched between two Second Class compartments with wooden benches.
“With the early trains, it was more profitable to carry coal than passengers,” says Randall. “So some passengers travelled on top of the coal.”
There are Victorian engines and plaques offering a roll-call of historic railway works - “Great Northern Railway, Doncaster... The Hunslet Engine Co... Caledonia Works, Kilmarnock... Crewe Works”.
There’s a red-striped 1964 InterCity carriage and another with triangular red-and-white No Smoking signs. And there’s a horse box designed to transport race horses with their grooms and jockeys.
We clamber into an engine cab and Allison talks about the firemen “shovelling a ton of coal an hour into the firebox”. He used to work as a fitter and is steeped in Shildon’s railway history.
Surviving buildings from those great days are scattered around Locomotion’s landscaped site. They include Timothy Hackworth’s handsome 1830s home, once run as a museum in its own right.
All told, The Other Railway Museum, with its shop, cafe and picnic and play areas, adds up to an engaging outing. Even without Scotsmania.
Shildon Shed Bash runs from July 23 to 31. Free admission to both the event and Locomotion. Details on 01388 777999; nrm.org.uk.