Back in August we decided to take a trip to York to celebrate my birthday and agreed we’d spend some time looking around the city itself before heading to the National Railway Museum (NRM) for the afternoon. This post is going to look at the NRM itself, however you’ll soon be able to read about York itself on Beth’s blog and my review of our journey to York here. The review of our eventful journey home will be coming soon on the blog!
The NRM is part of the Science Museum Group (SMG) which also owns the Science Museum in London, the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, the National Collections Museum in Swindon as well as Locomotion in Shildon, Co. Durham. As with all the museums in the SMG, the NRM has free entry with additional costs for special activities and events. There is a suggested donation of £5 per adult, however there is no pressure from the staff and volunteers to donate this.
The NRM is located on an island within York’s railways surrounded by the East Coast Mainline (which the NRM is still connected to) and the freight lines that allow goods services to avoid York station. There is road access to the museum as well as pedestrian access from the rear of York station (the exit by platforms 10 & 11). In addition to this the NRM operates a road train between York Minister and the museum every half an hour from about 1115 until 1615 which costs £3 for adults and £2 for children each way.
The main exhibits of the NRM are laid out over three halls, the Station Hall, Main Hall and the North Shed. The NRM’s ‘flagship’ exhibits including Mallard and a replica of Stephenson’s Rocket can be found in the Main Hall, whilst the North Shed has an exhibition on The Flying Scotsman, as well as the museum’s collection store and workshop. The Station Hall is designed to provide the atmosphere of a working station and contains a number of historic wagons and carriages.
After arriving on the road train and putting our bags into a storage locker (this is optional but makes the visit a lot easier), we headed to the Station Hall to see what it had to offer. Immediately inside the hall is a horse drawn carriage that used to operate from Tenterden station in Kent, a town where Beth lived for a year, with the station now only served by heritage trains of the Kent and East Sussex Railway. The station hall has a number of locomotives, including a Class 87 that operated on the West Coast Mainline (WCML) prior to the existing Pendolinos, and a Midland Railway 4-2-2 locomotive (No. 673, Midland Spinner) which looked splendid in it’s crimson livery.
The station hall is also home to a number of carriages and wagons, including a travelling post office, milk truck and saloons belonging to Queen Victoria, King Edward and Queen Elizabeth II. Some exhibits in this hall are open to explore in more depth including the travelling post office and the footplate of Midland Spinner, however the display boards gave plenty of information and history about those that weren’t.
After finishing up in the main hall, we crossed the underpass that connects the station hall and entrance area with the main hall and were surprised by just how much the NRM had managed to fit into the hall! At the far end of the hall is a turntable, around which most of the locomotives are located, and closer to the entrance is a café, some more locomotives as well as the Shinkanzen exhibition. There is also a model railway, an exhibition on British Rail and an impressive signal gantry on display.
As we worked our way towards the far end of the hall (via the model railway), the thing that stood out the most was the sheer size of the Chinese Government Railways 4-8-4 KF locomotive on display. This locomotive was built in Newton-le-Willows and was gifted to the museum by the Chinese Government in 1979. The locomotive runs on the standard 4ft 8½inches gauge, however is much higher and wider than standard British locomotives.
On the day of our visit the NRM has a number of talks and events going on throughout the museum, with some having an additional cost, however most were free of charge. One such talk we were both interested in was a demonstration of the turntable which had been in operation since 1932. This talk is in fact run on a daily basis by the NRM and it is amazing to see how easily heavy locomotives are moved. As well as being powered by an electric motor, there is also a handcrank operation displayed by the ‘explainers’ which is impressive to watch! You can see a video of the turntable in action on my Instagram account here.
Next to the turntable, in the far corner of the hall from the entrance, is an exhibition on hospital trains which Beth had decided to explore whilst we were waiting for the turntable demonstration. I’d explored this exhibition on a previous visit and whilst interesting, I decided to investigate some of the other locomotives on display and attempt to get some ‘arty’ photos for Instagram. As usual, I should have probably stuck to being a train geek and not a train photographer, however you can view one of the photos on my Instagram here.
After exploring most of the main hall, we decided it was time for a sit down and a cup of coffee and so headed for the café near the entrance of the main hall. If you’re looking for some more substantial refreshment than tea and cake, there is also a restaurant in the station hall and a dining carriage in the courtyard outside the main hall. Given the captured market, our drinks were reasonably priced and whilst we drank them Beth got another one of ‘Aidan’s lessons in signalling’, this time on the principle of signals at diverging junctions!
We’d decided to save the best of the main hall until last and so en route to the north shed went to see the famous Mallard A4 locomotive which is displayed nearby to a Type 4 locomotive, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry Class 55 Deltic and the Western Requiem Class 52 locomotive. Mallard is historically significant as the holder of the world speed record for steam locomotives, having managed 126mph along Stoke bank, south of Grantham, on 3rd July 1938. Mallard managed it’s 126mph run less than four years after The Flying Scotsman became the first locomotive to break 100mph, showing just how quickly technology was moving at the time.
Moving into the north shed, there is an exhibition on The Flying Scotsman, covering the history of both the locomotive and the named services to and from London King’s Cross. Also on display was one of the border posts from the East Coast Mainline (ECML) displaying an English rose and a Scottish thistle. The north shed is also home to a large part of the NRM’s collection that is not on display. The towering shelves of this part of the museum are home to a multitude of hidden railway gems and amusingly whilst I was focused on the amazing marble statue of Britannia, originally from Euston station, Beth was focused on the Platform 9¾ sign hanging below it.
Located on the mezzanine level of the north shed is an exhibition and gallery focused on the ‘Working Railway’. This shows the history of the railway including accidents and developments and also has screens showing the current computerised signalling surrounding York station (unfortunately this wasn’t working on our visit). The mezzanine also provides access to the viewing platform which allows visitors to watch the trains arriving into and departing York via it’s northern throat, whilst the mezzanine also provides fascinating views over the NRM’s workshop where the locomotive ‘Sir Nigel Gresley’ was undergoing a major overhaul.
After an early start and a great day exploring York and the NRM we were beginning to tire and so, having had our fill of all things railway, headed to the NRM’s shop and then back to the station for a pint at the York Tap. The NRM’s shops (there’s one in the main hall and one near the entrance) have a wide range of railway related things from books and posters to children’s toys and the seemingly obligatory Harry Potter memorabilia.
This was my second visit to the National Railway Museum and I still found it thoroughly enjoyable with plenty to see, do and learn about. Given I was accompanied by someone who is by no means a railway enthusiast, we both had a great time and the NRM manage to pitch the information and history at all ages and levels of enthusiasm. If you’re in York definitely pay the NRM a visit and if you want to make a special trip, I’d certainly recommend it.