Doing the Locomotion : NRM Shildon

Saturday was another of my partners’ weekends at college (these seem to come around faster and faster) so Barney and I opted for a visit to Locomotion – the National Railway Museum at Shildon.  This was purely an educational visit for Barney’s benefit, you understand…

Like Mima, Locomotion is another new facility we were surprised to learn about when we moved back up here in 2010.  I guess it makes sense – given that Shildon was the site of the first steam hauled passenger rail journey, and went on to churn out tens of thousands of railway wagons over the years.  It just seems a little unlikely that there’s a ‘national’ museum tucked away in this corner of southern County Durham (sorry Shildon) but there is, and that’s great!

It’s taken us nearly three years to go, though.  I guess Barney provides the perfect excuse, but looking at reviews on TripAdvisor, there’s a lot of comments about it being a ‘hidden gem’ or a ‘well kept secret’.  Looking at Twitter slightly bears this out – they’ve been using the social networking site since November 2011 and have only amassed 100 followers.  To be fair, they have over 1,000 likes on Facebook, but perhaps more could be done to draw people in?

So we set off on Saturday, having tapped the postcode provided on the Locomotion website into the SatNav, and after about 40 minutes drive we drew up outside the huge, barrel shaped shed that houses the museum’s collection.

The Collection at Locomotion

Entrance is free, and heading in, you’re immediately greeted by an impressive line-up of engines.  At present, this includes the prototype for the ill-fated Advanced Passenger Train, and one of its predecessors on the Euston-Glasgow run, the equally streamlined Duchess of Hamilton.

Barney was immediately taken by the laminated ‘luggage tags’ attached to each carriage, and we spent a pleasant hour or so meandering up and down the rows of train, with me trying to explain to him the significance of everything from a royal carriage to a sixties slam-door unit which looked uncannily like trains I remember riding from Orpington to Charing Cross just ten or so years ago.  Barney’s favourite was a Wagons-Lit sleeper car.  It might have been the wax-work  models on board, but I’d like to think I’ve lit a bit of enthusiasm in him for some inter-railing at some point in his life!

As we wandered down the last row of trains, I felt a little unfulfilled.  Sure, it was a great collection of engines and carriages, perforated by the occasional bit of memorabilia – but where was the context?  Why was this collection here, in Shildon?  It felt like the story hadn’t been told.

I was soon to find out.  The collection shed is just one part of the Locomotion site.  The whole thing stretches for over a kilometre along a railway line.  Quite how you’re supposed to work this out unaided, I’m unsure.  We only realised because we needed to walk to the other end of the site to find a cashpoint (the cafe, inexplicably, doesn’t take cards, despite the shop on site doing so).

So we strolled along the wide path, past a kids playground, a ‘real’ working Northern Rail station and an interesting sculpture which displays the names of trains sent to it by text.  Eventually – after about 15 minutes walk – we obtained cash for our lunch at a Co-op the other side of a car park at the furthest reach of the site.

It seems like whoever designed Locomotion intended your visit to start at this end of the site.  The Welcome Centre does a great job explaining why Shildon is the site for this branch of the NRM, then you can visit a cottage dedicated to pioneering railway engineer Timothy Hackworth, and the former goods shed that now acts as a station.   Each of these buildings is numbered in order, and large arrows point the way back to the Collection Shed.  The whole site makes far more sense approached from this end.

Despite the steaming we’d seen going on earlier, there was no sign of any trains at the goods shed,  nor of the ‘Eco Bus’ which was advertised as running every 15 minutes.   Puzzled, and hopeful we could be whisked back to the collection building for lunch, I headed to the Welcome Centre.  There, a friendly curator explained that the steaming we’d seen was for a private function, so no train rides would be available  to the public on the day of our visit.  Despite the signage suggesting otherwise, the bus wasn’t running either, so walking it was!

I have to say, I’m still perplexed about why Shildon direct visitors to the Collection car-park (not just by Sat Nav, the brown tourist signage does the same thing) when the site is so much better approached from the other end.  It was noticeable how much quieter the Welcome Centre and Hackworth were compared to the Collection Shed, so it seems we were probably not the only visitors confused by the whole thing.

Back at the Collection, we finally got ourselves some lunch.  Having tracked down one of only two high-chairs available, I tucked into a huge jacket potato, while Barney grazed on sandwiches, banana and yoghurt.  The food’s pretty hearty – sandwiches, jackets, bacon or sausage butties and lasagne were on offer during our visit.

The shop is also worthy of a mention.  If you’ve got a train enthusiast in the family (old or young) I’m sure they’d be in heaven.  From what must be the north-east’s largest collection of Thomas merchandise, through Brio-style wooden railways to more techie (and expensive) models and books, there is a whole world of railway memorabilia on offer.  Barney was strangely unmoved – perhaps the array of choice was too much for him, or perhaps the whole thing had got too much by that point – so I limited myself to a couple of postcards which will no doubt prove popular on Postcrossing.

I think this is one to return to in a few years.  The play-park was slightly out of Barney’s age range, and though there was a plethora of kids activities (colouring-in, brass rubbing, bits of railway equipment to play with), none of it was really suitable for a kid as young as him.  All in all, though, a good cheap day out.  A little out of the way, but worth making the effort for. We’ll certainly be back in a couple of years.

Update: I dropped Locomotion a line with some feedback about the cafe and the signage, and was pleased to receive a really prompt reply from the museum manager.  He advises that they’re aware of both these issues – people are directed to the Collection car park due to issues previously with parking in residential roads.  They are aware of the need for additional signage for visitors arriving at the Collection, but this may take a little while to arrange due to lack of available funding.   Plus, they’re in discussions with the cafe re taking cards. Good news – both these things will make a good day out even better.

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