Once upon a time, for which read the start of the 20th century, the electric tram was a mainstay of urban transport. Those golden days are lovingly recreated at the National Tramway Museum in Crich, Derbyshire, where a substantial collection of preserved vehicles operate for your delectation and delight. [12 photos]
The collection began in the 1950s, rescuing vehicles that'd otherwise have been scrapped and relocating them to a quarry on a hilltop above the Derwent Valley. George Stephenson had built a mineral railway here in the early days of steam, so the place had history. Volunteers laid a mile-long track, added sheds and depots to store what's now over sixty vehicles, and relocated a few heritage buildings to give the place a small-town feel. It makes for a proper (not exclusively transport-focused) day out.
At the ticket desk they give you an old penny to exchange on your first tram ride for a clippie-punched ticket. Trams run all day to the quarrytop and back, and visitors can ride as often as they like so long as there's enough space aboard. In dry weather open-topped vehicles are used, but at the sniff of a shower in the forecast the covered trams come out (which at least means you get decorated ceilings to admire). On my visit trams from Sheffield, Glasgow and Berlin were being given the runaround, each operated by enthusiastic peaked-capped staff.
Trams are the ultimate in inaccessible travel, with a massive step up followed by a vertiginous staircase to the upper deck. It's a wonder these trams ever fulfilled their design brief given the time taken to board and alight, although I suspect 100 years ago there weren't quite so many pensioners and small children trying to descend. Rest assured that one vehicle - the Access Tram - has indeed been fitted with a ramp, and that use of a walking stick wasn't putting everyone off clambering upstairs for the finest view.
The service begins at Town End, alongside a genuine Tardis-style police phonebox and the migrated frontage of Derby Assembly Rooms. Step inside the latter for recognition that modern light transit trams exist, and a wallfull of maps showing every former tram network in every distant corner of the UK. Yes, even Weston-Super-Mare and the Isle of Bute. The Discovery Centre presents a well-judged history of the site and trams in general, including how they saved Britain's streets from becoming a quagmire of horse manure. And then there are the tramsheds.
These are crammed with vehicles, parked just close enough for visitors to squeeze past, tucked out of the way awaiting their day on the tracks. The main display collection is in the Great Exhibition Hall, which is laid out decade by decade to show the development of vehicles from equine-tugged to steam-thrust to electric-powered. Sadly only one vehicle is open for visitors to go inside, and even then only the lower deck - a mild frustration which feels like a missed opportunity.
At the top of the cobbled high street the main tracks narrow to pass beneath a lofty bridge, this shipped in from the Bowes-Lyon estate in Ware. Not only does the bridge provide a useful viewpoint but the width restriction means careful juggling of points and tokens is required to keep the day's timetable on track. A further complication on Thursday was a learner driver taking a Blackpool tram out for a spin under close supervision, either to learn the ropes for the future or as part of one of those moneyspinning Tram Driver Experiences.
Beyond Victoria Park the tracks enter the quarry proper past disused machinery and beneath blasted millstone cliffs. That strange tower on the hilltop is Crich Stand, a memorial to soldiers from the Sherwood Foresters Regiment, which is separately visitable and (on a good day) climbable too. Before long the tram reaches a clearing at Wakebridge, which is also accessible via a separate Woodland Walk should you fancy a different route back. The Walk's much more interesting than it sounds, with proper weaving trackways, viewing platforms looking out across the valley, a selection of humorous wood sculptures and a chunky rock labyrinth.
The overhead wires beyond Wakebridge were repaired during the winter, and there's been a bit of trouble with the connections ever since, so on the morning of my visit services had had to be curtailed. This did at least mean I got to watch a tower wagon inch up the line carrying two practical-looking souls in hardhats wielding toolboxes, beavering away making temporary repairs. I had feared I'd never see the top of the line at Glory Mine, but thankfully their travails eventually succeeded and from mid-afternoon the full service resumed, including panoramic views on the uppermost stretch.
Return tram services deposit passengers outside the village's cluster of refreshment offerings. The Red Lion pub derives from Stoke-on-Trent, and now serves craft ales, sodas and quite a lot of gin. There's also a tearoom (with hot food options), a sweet shop and an ice cream parlour, all good for a gentle sitdown. But it's the trams that are the star of the show, and on the slight off-chance that one or two of my readers might perhaps have a mild interest in public transport I can heartily recommend a visit.
» The nearest station to Crich is the delightfully-named Whatstandwell on the Derwent Valley Line.
» The museum is only a mile away, but when they say it's up a steep hill they are not kidding. The route follows a narrow country lane which bends up the hillside past cute and not so cute cottages, and eventually sheep, affording excellent views across the Derwent Valley. The panorama gets pretty gorgeous pretty quickly. If you're reasonably fit it'll be no problem, but there are gym workouts that'd tire you out less. It's a lot easier on the way down.
» I reached the museum just under three hours after leaving St Pancras.
» A return ticket from London St Pancras to Whatstandwell costs £194.50, or £109.00 if you're happy not to arrive at the museum until midday, or £66.50 if you go at the weekend, or £40 if you book two months in advance and select sub-optimal trains.
» I booked a train to Derby one month in advance using the Megatrain website, then bought a separate return from Derby to Whatstandwell and my total fare was less than £30.
» Admission to the museum is currently £17.50.
» If you show a valid rail ticket at the entry desk they lop £3 off the admission fee. This fact is not advertised in any of the museum's publicity or on its website (but it is mentioned in the Derwent Valley Line's timetable leaflet, thanks).
» This reduced price doesn't include 12 months free entry to the museum, just a one-off visit, but unless you're local that's not going to be a problem.