York: National Railway Museum

Happy New Year, everyone! To carry on our anniversary tradition of going somewhere even greyer and rainier than London, Marcus and I headed up to York for a few days at the end of November. We had been there together once before in 2010, back in the dark days before I had a blog, so I thought it was well worth doing a return trip, this time with more museum visits and a nicer hotel (or so we thought, at least until the night a drunk man wandered into our room whilst we were asleep. We still don’t know how he got in, and let me tell you, suddenly waking up from a sound sleep to see a strange man in your room is no picnic, even if he came in by accident and not with malicious intent). We started with the National Railway Museum immediately after arriving, before we had even checked into our hotel, because the museum is only about a two minute walk from the train station, but it was a twenty minute walk from our hotel, and I am lazy. Fortunately, they had lockers at the museum for our bags, though be forewarned you need £3 in the exact denominations of a £2 coin and a £1 coin to use them (though the museum will give change if needed), and you won’t be getting that money back.


Bags safely stowed, we headed into the museum proper, which is free to visit (it’s part of the Science Museum group). As you might expect from a museum that houses actual trains, the building is huge. It actually straddles two halves of a road, and is split between a Great Hall, Station Hall, North Shed, South Yard, and a few other little nooks and crannies (just like an English muffin, or a toasting muffin, as I like to call them in England). Because it was nearest the lockers, we started with the Station Hall, which meant we saw the thing I most wanted to see first: Laddie, the dog who used to collect money for charity inside Waterloo Station. He is long dead, though he remained in the station for decades after he died, having been taxidermied and enclosed inside a box into which you can drop coins (I would love it if they had actually rigged up some kind of motor so he barked or something when you did, but he just stands there, inanimate), before being moved to the museum, where you can still drop coins into him. However, I preferred to save my coins for one of those machines that flattens a penny that I always end up laboriously describing because I don’t know their technical name. Well, guess what? Thanks to the machine here, now I do! It’s a Pennymangle! This is how I shall refer to these machines henceforth, and I naturally had to mangle myself a Laddie penny in their machine.


The Station Hall is also where the trains of the rich and famous are kept…well, the trains of British royalty anyway. One of my dreams is to have my own private carriage so I can travel where I need to go without having to interact with the plebs, and of course for the royal family, deeply undeserved though it is, that fantasy is a reality. Only some of them had a whole damn train’s worth of carriages rather than just one. Like Victoria, for instance, who pootled around in a very fancy set of coaches, whilst her aunt, Queen Adelaide (I kind of love the term dowager queen, even though it’s a bit insulting to queens who weren’t actually elderly when they were widowed), was only given one small carriage of her own to trail behind Victoria’s train (I assume Victoria kept the door between the cars locked so she didn’t have to associate with Adelaide). Don’t get me wrong, honestly I’d be happy with my own compartment (with private bathroom of course), but it seems a bit crap for a queen compared to what the rest of them got. Sorry about the poor picture quality of these trains, but the Station Hall was very dark.


In addition to the royal trains (Adelaide-Elizabeth II), this hall also contained historic carriages from trains for us normies, and my god, even the third class carriages were nicer than what you get nowadays in first class, at least from what I’ve seen from the outside looking in (except for maybe the lack of lights unless you brought your own with you. No wonder so many people were murdered in trains). OK, so the earliest trains sucked because you’d just have to ride in an open carriage with wooden benches, but later on you’d be riding in style, with even a third class dining car in some trains that looked well fancier than anything you’d see on the average modern train.


After we finished reliving the glory days of rail, we headed outside to the South Yard, though on a day as gloomy as the one we visited, there wasn’t much to see. There are steam train and miniature railway rides available for a fee, and there is a shed containing the Workshop, where in theory you can see museum staff working on trains, though nobody was in on a Saturday so it was just some trains with no signage. We headed back in pretty quickly and made tracks (ha) for the Great Hall.


I thought the Station Hall was pretty big, but the aptly named Great Hall was even bigger, and was also full of trains, this time arranged around a vintage turntable. You could even climb aboard some of these trains, like the Japanese Shinkansen, apparently the only one outside of Japan. I think it’s probably time I said it – apart from us, visitors seemed to fall into two categories: families with young children, and well, anoraks. Definitely a lot of trainspotting types, some of whom were actively taking notes in little notebooks. So we felt a little out of place, and had difficulty looking inside some of the trains, as the viewing platforms were dominated by small children who refused to move. It’s nice to see children enjoying a museum, but I could have done with some of them being a little less bratty. The trainspotters, however, were relatively inoffensive.


Marcus, whilst not a trainspotter, was quite excited to see the Mallard, the world’s fastest steam locomotive. As it’s not actually moving anywhere inside the museum, I’m not sure I see the appeal. Still, there were plenty of interesting things in here, even for the likes of me, especially the WWI hospital train. I’ve read about them, but had never actually gotten to go inside one, so that was definitely a neat experience. I also liked all the vintage railway posters scattered throughout the museum, even the crab one, below.


The Great Hall leads into the North Shed, which contains a section on the Flying Scotsman, and is also basically an open collections store that you can walk around. Everything is just stacked on top of everything else all higgledy-piggledy, and there was no real organisation to the collection and minimal signage, but it was worth walking around to spot some of the odder artefacts, like a vintage roll of coarse brown LNER toilet paper (we took a LNER train up, but I didn’t actually use the toilet (I avoid train toilets whenever possible, and it was only a two hour journey) so I can’t comment on the softness of its modern equivalent). And then I discovered there was a whole gallery upstairs as well, full of the detailed information about railways that had been somewhat lacking in other parts of the museum (aside from an exhibition on National Rail, the focus was mainly on the individual trains on display), including, excitingly, railway disasters! There was also a viewing platform up here where you could watch trains pulling into York Station (despite the rain, it was disturbingly crowded with keen train beans), but platform aside, this area felt a little forlorn, and wasn’t quite as dynamic and modern as the rest of the museum.


Finally, we checked out a temporary display of some of the Railway Museum’s choice memorabilia, including Stephenson’s (of Rocket fame) actual draught board and a miniature replica of a train where someone had been murdered that was used as evidence in the trial, and picked up a few postcards from the main shop (they have two shops). We didn’t visit the other temporary exhibition entitled “Brass, Steel, and Fire”, which was also free, but you had to book a ticket, and we just couldn’t be bothered (we were there for hours anyway, and we were ready to chill at the hotel for a bit), and I’m sorry to report that all of the ice cream huts at the museum were closed (probably because of the horrible weather), though there was an antique carriage that had been converted into a tea room that was open (we were waiting for Betty’s). Despite seemingly not being the museum’s target audience, and not much of a train enthusiast (I vastly prefer train travel to plane travel, but I’m not terribly interested in the trains themselves), I still managed to have a very enjoyable day, and I definitely recommend this museum to anyone visiting York, especially as it is one of the few museums here that is free (York apparently gets the most tourists in the UK outside of London, and it can be a bit of a tourist trap, though their high prices are still low compared to London). 4/5.