Back in August 1975, as a volunteer with the North Eastern Locomotive Preservation Group, I found myself busy in Shildon—helping with the Group’s presence at the Stockton and Darlington 150th anniversary celebrations. After the week-long exhibition and as a working volunteer, I found myself watching the cavalcade from a privileged viewpoint on the old down-sidings site. It was the memorable culmination to a remarkable week, for me, the Group and Shildon itself. Little did I imagine that almost 30 years later I would be back on the same patch of former railway land greeting the Prime Minister as we opened a stunning new railway museum.
In the late 1990s the National Railway Museum was suffering from an all-too-well-deserved reputation as a museum that let its collections rot in the open air. Despite a major extension in 1991, the York museum was full and its sidings were choked with deteriorating historic locos and carriages with nowhere to go. Loans to other museums were only partially successful and other deteriorating NRM vehicles were to be found at heritage sites and military depots across the UK. It was obvious that more covered space was needed—but how was it to be delivered?
There was space for a new building at York, but no money to build it. Neither did the hugely successful museum need more display space. Visitors’ length of stay was already more than three hours and it was difficult to imagine the general public valuing yet another hall full of static locos and carriages, testing further their attacks of ‘museum feet’.
The answer had to be to go elsewhere. Why wouldn’t a national museum seek to make its collections available to the public all across the country? A new museum (or better still, an extension to an existing small one) in a place where it could attract regeneration funds to aid the building and then visitors to boost the local economy had to be the answer; so we advertised for potential partners.
More than 30 initial enquiries were quickly whittled down. We were looking for credibility of the proposed location from a historic perspective, an enthusiastic and capable partner, a viable site, a potential visitor base and, of course, access to the funds that were going to be necessary. After looking more seriously at a shortlist, it soon became clear that Shildon had it all. The Timothy Hackworth Museum was a small but perfect partner; members and staff of Sedgefield Borough Council threw themselves wholeheartedly into the project; local people were supportive and Railtrack (remember them?) made the site available.
A new hall on this site could house more than 50 historic locos, carriages and wagons. The Heritage Lottery Fund came up with half the cost and Sedgefield Borough Council acted as the gateway to the regional and European grants that provided the rest. By the end of 2002 construction was under way and we could focus our attention on how the museum was going to succeed. It had to be both a home for the NRM’s collections and a new driver for tourism and the regeneration of the down (but certainly not out!) town of Shildon.
We promised our funders we would attract 60,000 visitors each year. It seemed an awful lot! Even before we opened we knew that this target would only be achieved if Locomotion became a ‘proper museum’, offering activities, events and education programmes to attract visitors. When Tony Blair came along to open the museum on 22 October 2004, I suspect the nervousness was as much about whether anyone would come along in the days and months ahead as it was about making sure the opening day’s events ran smoothly (thankfully they did).
The staff team we jointly appointed to run the museum and the slowly growing band of supporting volunteers proved fantastic and it quickly became clear that there was always going to be something new to see or different to do whenever one visited. Despite all our nervousness, that 60,000 target was quickly forgotten and I think I’m right in saying that annual visitor numbers have never been less than twice that figure; perhaps not surprisingly, higher still when there have been events like the lineup of six A4s to add icing to the cake.
Now, 15 years later, Locomotion has matured but continues to be a great success. Some of our ideas have worked superbly, others were perhaps worth trying but experience has led to constructive change. Cutbacks in funding have affected all our museums but Locomotion has delivered for the NRM’s collections (and its reputation) and for the future of the town of Shildon. Its two owning partners, Durham County Council (as successors to Sedgefield Borough Council) and the NRM’s parent Science Museum Group, have kept faith and the museum has an exciting future.
As a young heritage volunteer standing on the old marshalling yard on that exciting August day in 1975, I never imagined how this place, so crucial in the railway story, could be transformed into a world-renowned centre for the care and interpretation of the railway heritage. Nor could I imagine how I would find myself playing a part in that transformation.
I wonder what Locomotion will be like in another 45 years?