Saturday, 9 June 2012

STEAM: Museum of the Great Western Railway


a green steam engine
The Caerphilly Castle, a 1923 Castle Class engine.
You can go underneath it and get a good look 
at its cogs and pistons.
Steam trains! My office overlooks the railway line between Bristol and London, and every so often a steam train puffs its way past. I love that. In case you're wondering, my favourite engine that's gone by is the Bittern, which is currently painted up to look like the Dominion of New Zealand. Mr Robot calls me a trainspotter, but I don't care.

Yesterday we drove over to Swindon to visit STEAM, the Museum of the Great Western Railway. It's housed on the site of part of the old railway works. At its peak, the railway employed 14,000 people in Swindon, with everything from foundries for casting metal parts and carpenters to make the bodies of the carriages to teams of upholsterers and people who'd repair the existing rolling stock. Swindon was tiny before the Great Western built its railway works there in the mid-19th century. Swindon built trains, and the railway built Swindon.

A very old steam engine, red and black with a shiny metal funnel.
The North Star, a replica of the 1837 
engine that pulled the first train 
on the Great Western.
The first part of the museum tells you about the parts of the works, the offices and stores, the foundries, machine rooms, boiler room and so on. During the Second World War, when the men went to fight, the purpose of the site changed temporarily and the women of Swindon stepped up and made shell casings and other armaments. In the boiler room, there was an excellent video about the women who worked there during the war. Possibly the most moving things in the museum were the war memorials. Each shop had its own, to the men of that shop who'd died fighting, and I noticed that a pair from the same shop, one from the First World War and one from the Second, had the same surnames on both. Families often followed the same trade, and I found myself wondering if these men had been father and son, uncle and nephew, both working in the same place and meeting the same early end.

The interior of the Great western buffet car, with a long shiny counter stretching the length of the coach, and a row of little round stools in front.
The interior of the 1934 buffet car. 
So deco!
After the works part, the museum tells you about the Great Western rail network, including some splendid steam engines to see and information on shunts, freight trains, signal boxes... all the stuff that kept people and goods on the move. My favourite bits came a little after that, with a mocked up train station (one of the exhibits was a Victorian coffee pot, silver plated, in the shape of a steam engine, which was used in a station buffet) and some carriages. I loved the 1934 diesel train and the buffet car which looked like a proper diner, complete with a sandwich display cabinet and gleaming tea urns. Apparently these buffet cars were better known for the amount of whisky passengers consumed on them! Then there was a small exhibit on holidays by train, as the Great Western made it possible for more people than ever before to visit the south coast, and had its own hotels and even boats.

Mr Robot investigating the attractions of 
a seaside holiday by train.
I do wish there had been more to see: more trains, more carriages, perhaps more opportunity to get some experience of the railway. I love old railway posters, and there was very little on them - who painted them, how did they change over the decades and so on. It didn't take us very long to go round the museum, and when we left we weren't at all worried that we might have missed out on anything. It was all very clean and modern and easy to get round (a good place for wheelchair/ mobility scooter users to visit) but not exactly stuffed. The old railway works site is enormous, but most of it is taken up with an outlet shopping centre. They've preserved many things within the shopping centre, including cranes and an engine, but ultimately it's a historic industrial space taken up with the same old stuff you can buy anywhere. I enjoyed it, but I don't think I'll go back unless they install a lot of new exhibits or stage a special event.



3 comments :

  1. Thats a shame there wasn't a bit more, especially of the posters. Oh well, worth trying out anyway!

    Penny Dreadful Vintage

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  2. I forgot about those seaside attraction boxes – Harry watched one that showed a haunted room, with things moving and ghosts popping up, and talked about it for weeks afterwards!

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  3. We saw that one too! And the gillotine one. It gives me all sorts of ideas for steampunk contraptions...

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