The National Railway Museum comes in two parts, sixty miles apart, both refreshingly distant from London. The main collection (with the most stuff and the most visitors) is in York, immediately adjacent to the station. But the annexe is in Shildon, a small town ten miles north of Darlington, and consequentially less well known. The location may be out on a limb but it's historically faultless, slap bang on the route of the world's first passenger railway.
The Stockton and Darlington Railway opened in 1825, its purpose to link the collieries around Bishop Auckland to the estuary of the River Tees. A local enginewright called George Stephenson championed the use of steam-driven loco-motives on the line, the first named Locomotion No. 1, which duly left Shildon that inaugural day with around 500 passengers on board. They crowded into coal wagons fitted with seats and puffed intermittently towards Darlington, eventually reaching the heady speed of 15mph on the final run into Stockton. Along the way one wagon wheel fell off, and one passenger fell out and had his foot crushed, but the owners still deemed the day a great success and celebrated with a slap-up dinner.
Shildon became the place where engines were built and maintained, and most of the men in the town worked on the railways rather in the pits. A massive set of workshops and sidings grew up, with a few key buildings preserved to this day, and before long production switched to focus on wagon building and repairs. The freight business kept Shildon afloat until 1984, when British Rail closed the works down, and a small museum was maintained in the cottage home of a former chief engineer. Plans for a much larger building took root after the millennium, with an area of former sidings cleared for the construction of a vast silver shed, seven tracks wide. Tony Blair opened it in 2004, he being MP for the constituency nextdoor, and Locomotion: the National Railway Museum at Shildon was born.
The museum's unusual in that it's spread along a kilometre of old railway line, with the existing Shildon station roughly in the middle. All the heritage buildings are at the western end, adjacent to the edge of the town, and freely available to view from outside. These include a former Goods Shed, a Parcel Office, and a line of brick Coal Drops formerly used for refuelling. The 'Welcome' building used to be the Methodist Sunday School, and I thought this was where you were supposed to go first, except it was firmly closed. The interior, and that of the adjacent chief engineer's cottage, are only accessible on tours booked at the other end of the trail, and January isn't the best month to expect these to be running.
The Collection is where the action is, this in the aforementioned silver shed, which is home to over 70 vehicles of historical provenance. The oldest is Sans Pareil, the local entrant at the Rainhill Trials (the three-way 1829 competition which brought Stephenson's Rocket to prominence), which is normally kept in the Welcome building (but currently presumably not). Locomotion is also here, except that's a replica, lined up as part of a phalanx that impresses the moment you walk in.
Most of the engines on show are steam driven, from a variety of eras, great sleek shiny beasts with footplates you can peer into and marvel at the pre-digital interface. A number of old carriages have also been crammed in, including Edward VII's over-upholstered smoking saloon, a cross-Channel sleeper and the actual baggage van used to transport Winston Churchill's coffin on its last journey to Blenheim. Shildon's freight wagon tradition isn't ignored, although most visitors probably gloss past that. Up in the far corner a number of volunteers are working on restoring a Network South East carriage, because all eras deserve representation, and yes of course there's a model railway layout at the back staffed by old men who prefer things small.
The train that stirred me most was a unique creation from the 1970s, the Advanced Passenger Train. This tilting wonder was due to revolutionise high speed travel, but the technology didn't deliver, and British Rail rolled out the ubiquitous High Speed Train instead. The APT-E at Shildon is a glimpse into a future that never came, with a sharp silver snout and streamlined body, its unfulfilled status reflected in the serial numbers roughly hand-painted onto locomotive and carriage. Adjacent displays and videos reinforce the message that the APT concept was in fact brilliant, and most of the world's modern tilting trains can trace back their underlying technology to BR's engineers. But instead here she sits, severed and shortened - for your own safety, No Entry.
The museum's essentially four long sets of parallel tracks, with the focus very much on vehicles rather than other railway paraphernalia. Careful thought has been given to keeping children occupied, and also in keeping the local community involved, with space given over (at present) to a display about historic local non-league football teams. A cafe and a gift shop fill out two corners, the latter with a considerable model railway section, and yes admission's free, because that's how the NRM rolls.
Trains on the Bishop Auckland line run every two hours during the day, and I'd say this two hour gap is all you need to enjoy the contents of the Collection. Unless the other historic buildings are open there's not much else to see in Shildon, so you might want to nip back to Darlington where the actual 1825 Locomotion is on show in a smaller museum alongside North Road station. Alas that was closed when I passed by, so I can confirm there's not much else to do in Darlington either, except for staring at the Town Hall and wandering aroundthe shops. Never mind - it left me half a day free to venture elsewhere...