The National Railway Museum could perhaps be better named. For a start I'd query the Railway bit. There is plenty of stuff other than trains and carriages, but most visitors turn up for the engines, and most of the exhibits are on wheels. And then there's the National bit. Being located in York, a high proportion of the exhibits have an East Coast mainline bent, and there's not so much from further afield. So perhaps the attraction's title should be the LNER Locomotive Museum. They'd still come.
The National Railway Museum has a bit of a special on at the moment. There aren't normally queues snaking out of the front door, and zigzagging outside the entrance, and diverting round the staff car park, and doubling back up a side alley. But then it's not every month they have a big anniversary to celebrate. It's 75 years since Mallard broke the speed record for a steam train, thundering down an incline outside Grantham, and her 126mph peak still stands. Sleek blue Mallard is usually kept here at the NRM, but this July they've brought in her five sistersfor a fortnight to stir the hearts of steamlovers everywhere. That includes one from the US, one from Canada and one nominally from South Africa, briefly back in their spiritual home in Yorkshire.
This 'Mallard 75' event ends today, hence rather a lot of people turned up yesterday. It being midweek, the majority of these were gentlemen who remember the age of steam first time round. Some of their wives came round too (or at least sat on the sidelines and waited patiently, or even brought the dog as an excuse not to be allowed inside the museum). Crowds thronged the turntable area in the Great Hall, their main objective to take a photo with one, two, ideally six of the locomotives in shot. This proved somewhat tricky, given that everyone trying to take a photo kept getting in the way of someone else trying to taking a photo, but still they flocked round. If you were patient you could join a queue to step up to the footplate - Mallard's queue being the longest, obviously, for those who insisted on boarding the genuine article. As for the Mallard simulator, that cost £5 extra, except the virtual reality had broken down yesterday so that wasn't an option.
Elsewhere the locos ranged from a replica Rocket to a Japanese bullet train, the latter providing somewhere cosy to sit down for those who'd had enough of standing. A footbridge runs between nowhere, introduced solely to provide a good elevated view. A model railway lurks in an alcove, and there's a busy cafe at the back where they sell non British Rail sandwiches. I particularly liked the small temporary exhibition on railway catering, entitled Moveable Feast, which featured everything from uniformed silver service to the wrapper of the last microwaved beefburger sold on a GNER train. Did they really once make Inter City 125 Toblerones, and how long is it since high tea (tea, bacon, egg, sausage, tomato, fried potato, buttered toasted tea cake, bread and butter, fruit cake and jam) cost 75p?
In another hall are the royal trains, because Kings and Queens are just like us except they get entire carriages to themselves with beds, telephones and comfy sofas installed. The Flying Scotsman is in a separate shed, being worked on as part of a major rescue and restoration project, and due to be display-worthy in a couple of years' time. The museum's storage warehouse is also open to the public so you can browse through all sorts of railway ephemera from buffet car chairs to nameplates. There are rather a lot of nameplates affixed to the walls, because often this is all that's survived from a once-mighty locomotive. And for the true railway-o-holic there's even an outdoor balcony where you can watch the trains pulling in and out of York station, and check the real-time signalling too. Each to their own.
I confirmed, wandering round, that my main interests lie with the non-train stuff. Give me the bits about infrastructure and organisation every time, rather than a belching funnel or a gleaming engine. And I confirmed yesterday that this puts me in a minority, certainly amongst those who frequent the National Railway Museum, who'd much rather coo and fuss around a locomotive. But at least access to this fine museum remains free of charge, so you can come along and make up your mind for yourself. Or just come and spend the day in full-on worship mode - you'll know if that's you.