On a rainy Saturday we drove to York to spend the afternoon at the National Railway Museum. Husband is a bit of a train nerd, Son is moderately keen, I have no interest whatsoever. With that in mind, I wasn’t really expecting much from this visit. How wrong I was! I loved this museum – it was fascinating and we stayed all day until closing time.
It is next door to the city’s railway station and super easy to find. This is the world’s largest railway museum where Britain’s past railway glories are preserved. It is stuffed with fast, pretty, sturdy and innovative locomotives of all shapes and sizes. Open every day, entrance is free and they just ask for a donation to help with running costs.
We were given a sheet at the entrance with details of special events going on that day – there were a lot. We only managed to squeeze in one thing on this list – a science talk for children at the Learning Platform. Using an “elephant launcher”, a flying Barbie and some balloons a very funny presenter explained the science behind how trains move in such an entertaining way that all members of our family were engrossed. There was plenty of audience participation – adults and children alike, this is not for those of a shy disposition.
They have an outdoor playground and a little outdoor train, but due to the near monsoon conditions we had to give these a miss and go inside. We found the Great Hall, a huge former engine shed, where we started at one end and worked our way round. First up was a replica of Rocket, the famous train built by George Stephenson.
Son enjoyed climbing up all the steps and peeking into the cabs of the various trains. We found Mallard, the world’s fastest steam locomotive which broke the record in 1938 and holds it to this day. This iconic train was next to two other sleek locomotives – one shipped from Canada and the other brought back from the USA. All three are beautifully restored to their former glory and make quite a sight.
Son was very taken with the Japanese bullet train – apparently the only one outside Japan. We climbed on board and watched a video about this train and its history.
We found a Eurostar train and the locomotive from the Harry Potter movies amongst many others.
The Warehouse is their open storage system, you can stroll around this Aladdin’s cave, packed from floor to ceiling with everything and anything even remotely linked to railways.
They have an area where you can look down on engineers in the workshop as well as heaps of hands-on activities for children. Son “built” the Flying Scotsman, had a go at signalling and we all went onto the viewing balcony to look down at the trains below going into York station.
I enjoyed all of that but the next area – Station Hall – was by far my favourite part of this museum. It felt as if we had walked off a platform and straight into the Victorian age. This was once York’s main goods station, built in the 1870’s and is still so atmospheric. You really get the sights, sounds and smells of a station from the past. There were trains galore to climb on board, films to watch and so much to take in. The mail train was particularly fascinating – we saw how they sorted the post “on the go.”
The royal “Palaces on Wheels,” a collection of royal trains was the absolute best bit in my opinion. We stood on the platform and peeked through the windows to see how the royals once travelled.
Queen Adelaide’s saloon – so tiny – is the oldest preserved carriage in Europe. I loved Queen Victoria’s favourite carriage, made to her exact specifications it was opulent, lush and magnificent. She used it often to travel to Scotland – pure, unadulterated luxury.
George V had a bath on his train, the first person to have this. Why would you want to?
Right at the end was the Royal Saloon, built for George VI in 1941. It was plain, not at all extravagant but built in World War II, it had armour plated carriages designed for maximum protection while the Royals travelled up and down the country.
All too soon (to my utter astonishment) it was closing time. We had the obligatory (for Son) visit to the gift shop, surprisingly full of interesting and quirky souvenirs before we left. I would never have believed it in advance, but we all had a great day out at this museum. I can definitely say it is fascinating and fun for train spotters and non enthusiasts alike.