It must be nearly twenty years since we last went to the Railway Museum, so we were delighted to join train mad Grandson and family for a day out. We parked at the Designer Outlet off the A19 and used the Park and Ride to the Railway Station where there is a 5 minute walk to the museum. There is some parking at the museum but it is quite expensive. Park and ride cost us 60p for the outward journey but was free back to the Outlet. Adults are £2.60 return.
Grandson bounced all the way talking non-stop about what we were going to do and see. There was a steady stream of families heading to the museum. It was the first day of “Big fun with little trains”, nine days of family activities over half term. We were welcomed, declined the guide and children’s worksheets and were given a sheet listing activities for the day.
The museum occupies a huge site and is spread across two sites separated by Leeman Road. You need a full day to do it justice.
We decided to start with the Great Hall which was originally the site of the locomotive depot. When we last visited, the giant turntable was in pride of place in the centre of the hall with the locos arranged round it. It had the wow factor. This has all changed now and the turntable has been moved and the first sight on entering the hall are the refreshments…. It doesn’t have the same visual impact. Behind the refreshments a large area had been cleared for a childrens’ play area set up with play mats and Chuggington toy railway (not my favourite train set). There is less space for the locos and less room to move between them. Anyone in a wheelchair might have difficulties. The whole feel of the place has changed and the locos feel as if they are being crowded out as the refreshments area expands.
We went to find Mallard, Grandson’s favourite loco. On previous visits it had been possible to go on the footplate, but not today. He was disappointed and being held by Grandma to look inside just wasn’t the same. Next to her was Dwight D Eisenhower, another A4, resplendent in deep green livery. There was no information about her or to explain why she is dark green rather than the blue of Mallard, Sir Nigel Gresley and Bittern.
We stopped to admire the Green Arrow on the turntable and again there was no information about her.
We walked past the replica of Stevenson’s Rocket with her coaches, Copper Knob and the Brampton Dandy coach to find Livingstone Thompson, Grandson’s second favourite. If you didn’t know this was a narrow gauge double Fairlie locomotive from the Ffestiniog Railway, there was no information to enlighten you. Unlike the working Ffestiniog locos, her brass work was in need of a clean. We then headed to the Japanese Bullet train which is next to the massive Chinese loco. This is one of the few coaches you can actually walk through and sit in. There is a short video to watch.
Grandson disappeared to fight his way through the crowds to play with the Chuggington toy railway and had two short rides behind the mini diesel being run by the Leeds Society of Model and Experimental Engineers. With not much more than 100m of track this was quite expensive at 50p a ride.
Grandpa took the chance to wander round by himself. Being a GWR man, he wanted to find King George V. He came back chuntering that their was little or no information about many of the locos. There was no apparent order to the displays and no attempt to put the displays into their historical context. He was disappointed and felt that the museum was in danger of losing its purpose and becoming a fun play area for the tinies. He commented that virtually no-one was actually looking at the exhibits. There were no staff around the exhibits to talk to and ask questions.
Having finished in the Great Hall, we headed to the Station Hall. This was originally the goods yard and has been transformed to represent a station, with another refreshment area. The Royal trains are here, along with Gladstone, the loco which pulled Queen Victoria’s train. The coaches glimpsed through the windows give a fascinating glimpse of how Royal tastes have changed. In a far corner is a travelling post office. On a wall is a massive Cuneo painting of Waterloo station, full of life and detail. It took us a long time to find the mouse.
There is a large empty area along one side of the Station Hall. Part of this was set out with chairs and tables and there was a large children’s play area with small pedal trains for the 3-7 year olds. These were very popular and there was always a queue for them. Grandson showed little interest in the Royal Trains as he was too small to peer through the windows but did managed to wangle four rides on the pedal trains. In another corner was a lego workshop with a supply of the small size lego pieces to make vehicles with and then run then down a slope.
We headed outside into the South Yard, where Teddy, a small saddle loco was running brake van trips along a length of track. Charged at £2 for adults and children over two this must be one of the main money spinners for the museum, especially as entry is now free. Those at the front of the queue head for the front of the brake van as this gives a good view of the loco crew working. To Grandson’s delight he was allowed to wave the green flag. This was the highlight of the day.
Grandson then headed for the children’s adventure playground which was very ordinary with a couple of wooden locos and trucks, but no track or signal box. I have seen better elsewhere. Again this was busy. The sign says this is for 3-8 year olds and children must be supervised by parents. There were some very large (and unsupervised) ‘eight’ year olds climbing on top of the locos. There were no staff around.
We ignored the miniature steam ride run by York City and District Society of Model Engineers at 50p for another very short ride and headed for the 7 1/4” gauge railway in the South Yard which for £1 gave a much longer run. This was popular with adults and children and I’ll own up that I went for a ride too.
Back inside the museum we headed back to the Great Hall and through into the warehouse where artefacts are stored. These include furniture, crockery and glass used by the different railway companies, bells, token machines, examples of stained glass from stations; a real Aladdin’s cave. All are piled up high and there is little attempt to display them and no labels. This is a shame as there is a veritable history of railway travel just sitting here crying out to be displayed properly.
In the far corner was the Signalling School with a large 100 year old layout with bells and signals controlling movement of the locos. There was a continuous demonstration with very informative commentary. Grandson enjoyed watching this but the commentary went over his head so we needed to explain what was happening for him. Small children couldn’t see and had to he held as there was no-where for them to stand and watch.
Beyond is the workshop where Flying Scotsman is presently in bits being restored. Again there is no information about the loco or work being done on it.
Tucked away in a corner upstairs, along with blue print drawing of locos, is a ‘build your own loco’ following instructions on posters on the wall from using the bits of wood provided. This was very popular with a group of scouts, who fortunately left the completed locos for Grandson to play with. Both had been well played with and the joints were getting worn and bits were loose and kept falling off.
Refreshments are sold in both the Great Hall and the Station Hall and are taking up an increasingly large area. On the plus side, there is no restriction on bringing your own food and drink into the museum and there are seats around the museum where you are able to sit and eat your own food.
The shop on the way out was very disappointing for a National Railway Museum. Many of the preserved railways have better shops. It sold a range of Bigjigs train toys, had some Thomas merchandise and clothes for the under 4s. It did sell engine driver hats, guard’s whistles and red and green flags. The children’s book selection was very poor and the adults seemed to concentrate mainly on glossy books. There was little for the serious enthusiast. There was a small range of gift type items and postcards.
To reach the Great Hall from the entrance it is necessary to go down and then up a flight of stairs. A small lift is provided which was struggling with the numbers of pushchairs. One of these was out of action in the afternoon with a sign to contact a member of staff for instructions to another route. Fortunately there were plenty of willing adults to help with pushchairs on the steps.
Entry is free, although a voluntary contribution of £3 is encouraged. Rides are charged extra and depending on how many you do, can begin to work out expensive, especially as you pay full price for the over twos.
Grandson had a marvellous day and it was fun watching him enjoy himself. Husband set off with high hopes of really enjoying himself but gradually got more and more despondent as as the day progressed. The fact that the gents was heavily used with over flowing litter bins and toilet paper scattered around the floor added to his increasing disillusionment. The Ladies wasn’t quite as bad.
Maybe it was a mistake going at the start of a week of children’s activities. Nearly all the visitors were families with small children. There was little provided for the over eights. There were very few serious railway enthusiasts around and we were struck by how few people were actually looking at the exhibits.
Husband was bitterly disappointed and felt it was no longer a serious museum for those with a genuine interest in railways and was in danger of becoming a dumbed down version for the sound bite generation and a children’s play area. He was concerned about lack of in depth information about the exhibits and that many had no labelling or information. There was nothing (that we found) about the history and development of the railway. Britain had been in the forefront of railway development in the 19thC. You wouldn’t have known it from a visit to the railway Museum today.
This isn’t the review I was hoping to write . Before we went I had felt sure it would be straight 10*. I don’t have a problem with museums providing fun activities. It is important that children enjoy visits and want to come back. But surely they should be providing more than a Wacky Warehouse experience. There was little to encourage or develop the budding train driver, signal man or plate layer with suitable activities. Grandson, aged three, does gives it 10*, especially if he can go on the footplate of Mallard and wave the green flag for Teddy. Husband rated it considerably less – maybe 2*.