Thursday 28 January 2016

The Birthplace of the Railway

An email message arrived out of the blue from Virgin Trains East Coast around New Year with a gift of two First Class single tickets to anywhere on their line, a thank-you for being a frequent customer. It was a very welcome gift and a complete surprise; the tickets had to be used by a date around Easter time and it worked by having two £0.00 priced First Class advance singles available when I logged into the company's website. I looked at my diary and all the opportunities to travel as a couple within the allowed time had already been booked up (one of them the last use of the old East Coast Rewards scheme free tickets, as it happens), so rather than using these to reduce the cost of a trip together, I started thinking about a trip alone, perhaps to somewhere my wife would be less excited to visit … and Locomotion Shildon sprang to mind, a branch of the National Railway Museum, near Darlington.

This would give me a long ride for my free tickets, was easy to do in a day, and would take me somewhere I'd been wanting to visit and could be arranged for my birthday week, which was rather nice, especially as the diary that week was looking congested and my “uninterrupted 24-hour rest period” looked like being on my birthday itself. Website consulted, tickets were booked with connecting tickets between Stamford and Peterborough and between Darlington and Shildon, map of the museum site was downloaded and printed and I waited for the big day.

East Coast breakfast!
I left Stamford on the 07:19 train to get an early East Coast train from Peterborough to Darlington. Then I would not be hurried and would have breakfast on the train – included in the ticket price (i.e., free!). Day dawned as I waited at Peterborough: I can think of more exciting places to watch the sun rise, but I can also think of worse times to be in Peterborough … The weather forecast was rain mid-morning all down the east side of England, almost perfect as it would have stopped by the time I arrived at Shildon. Breakfast was served after Newark (and again after York – a bit late then for breakfast, but people were still taking it!) and I had the cooked English option, with orange juice and a croissant: coffee and a muffin had been served earlier to keep me going as far as Newark. When not eating and drinking I was in touch with my family via Whatsapp, which is brilliant for this sort of thing, sending pictures and messages to multiple recipients free of charge over the onboard wireless internet (again, free in First Class).

I got off the train at Darlington and spent a few minutes in the waiting room beginning to write this blog post, after a little exploration of this fascinating station. The entrance is in the middle of the station, with road access via a ramp from a street below, and the two through platforms are either side of the station with a pair of terminal bays facing south between them. (Edinburgh Waverley is similar, but larger, with more terminal bays.) Soon my train to Shildon came along – the contrast between this Pacer and the express I'd just left was stark, but it was warm and comfortable and it was only a few minutes' ride. The rain came on quite heavily on this section of the trip so I put my hood up as I prepared to get off, but it had stopped by the time I stood on the platform, The way to the various elements of Locomotion Shildon was clearly signposted from just outside the station and I decided to look at the outdoor bits first in case the rain started again before I'd done them.

Frankly there was not much to see outside. The “Welcome” building, a former Methodist Sunday School room which houses “Sans Pareil,” one of the earliest railway locomotives (not to mention the toilets!) was locked – not ever so welcoming, but I could lurk around the goods shed and the coal drops, the later being especially interesting from the railway historical point of view. No rain came and I saw all I wanted to see (apart from the inside of the Welcome building) there and made my way to the main exhibition hall at the other end of the site. I passed what I'd thought was a preserved signal box but it appeared to be still in use on the line by which I'd just arrived! An hour or so spent looking at the locomotives, coaches and wagons in the main building was well worthwhile, and in one corner, cordoned off because of the paint spray, a Deltic express diesel locomotive was being painted in the early two-tone green livery: I look forward to seeing her, “Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry”, out and about in due course. A beautiful engine and only one generation before much of the current front-line traction on the East Coast Main Line today.

There was a decent cafeteria inside the hall and I had a snack lunch there and then made my way back to Shildon station for the Pacer to Darlington. I had about three hours left before my booked train home, and so I alighted at North Road station instead of going through to Darlington Bank Top: at North Road is the Darlington Railway Museum, recently re-titled “Head of Steam,” in which the early locomotive “Locomotion No.1” is displayed, among other things. The museum gives a history of the area's association with railways, longer, of course, than anywhere else in the world: it all began here. The exhibition hall here is the original station building, now far grander than is needed for a local station on what is now a branch line. Admission is not free but is very inexpensive and well worthwhile.

And so to the main line station at Bank Top to get the train home. It is a bit of a walk from North Road to the town centre but I had plenty of time and had a good look round some of the shops before I went to the station where after a short wait my train to Peterborough arrived and I took my seat and waited just a short while before I was asked for my food and drinkorder. Although it was still quite early the hot meal was available and after ascertaining that I was travelling far enough the hostess handed me my cutlery and napkin (a neat little package, with salt and pepper sachets wrapped inside, too) and the lady with the drink trolley served me my beer. I had been looking forward to trying this bottled ale, Hop on Board, brewed especially for Virgin Trains East Coast, which has now replaced the canned Old Speckled Hen which used to be served in First Class. The beer was excellent, as I had been led to believe by others who had tried it, and crisps were a suitable “nibble” while waiting for my beef and ale pie which soon arrived. I was assured that more beer would be available after York, which it was. A banana made a good second course and I declined a third beer after we left Grantham. Hot chocolate was a better bet then, with the cold weather at the end of the journey.

A quick change of train at Peterborough and I was soon home, large dinner unnecessary for I had eaten rather more than the afternoon tea I had anticipated, but when beef and ale pie is on offer at no cost, well, you have to have it, don't you … and it was superb. I have to say, I do think the food and drink on offer suits me better than it did: I always liked it, but it now more filling and the pie crusts are really crusty. The Hop on Board ale is really good, although it is a pity that the label does make me think of Where's Wally!

It was a great day, a visit to the birthplace of the world's railways and at very little cost indeed, thanks to the sudden and unexpected gift of First Class tickets from Virgin Trains East Coast. A thoroughly good time.

Photographs of the day can be see in my Flickr album at

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