Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Beware! Trains

Two weeks ago, on the way back from visiting the second oldest building in England (the oldest is this, if you're interested), I nearly crashed the car when I saw a sign that read "Railway Museum". I don't have any great interest in trains, but I am endlessly fascinated by railway enthusiasts. I am a trainspotter spotter.

Having said that, I think that trainspotters and railway enthusiasts are quite different creatures. Trainspotting, at its purest, has been cited as a classic sympton of Asperger's Syndrome - an obsession with collecting data that has no meaning beyond its own terms of reference. The railway enthusiast, on the other hand, is driven by nostalgia: a deep-seated longing to leave the messy, complex and disappointing present for an idyllic, model railway vision of society, where everything connects, runs on time and makes sense.

I can relate to that.

I had never heard of the Mangapps Railway Museum at Burnham-on-Crouch. Given that this was a school half-term holiday with reasonably mild weather, I expected to see a few families ambling around the exhibits, but as I reached the end of a long dirt track, it was clear that the car park was completely empty.

No families. Not even those strange, middle-aged men with moustaches and very expensive SLR cameras that tend to proliferate in these sorts of places.

Why was I the only visitor?

The museum's website says that it is "believed" to have the largest signalling collection on public display in Britain. Even on a quiet Friday afternoon in late October, there must be enough signalling fans out there to provide a steady stream of visitors. Perhaps the museum's fairly remote location, on the Dengie peninsula, was an obstacle.

In addition to a fine collection of signals, the museum had some splendid signs:

There were also some intriguing machines like this one, which helped to ensure that the trains all ran to the timetable:

I can see the attraction of displays like these. They represent a world of fixed values and certainties. Gradients, distances between stations and capacities of branch lines are all constants. In this world, there are no incompetent private contractors or draconian branch line closures, whilst private cars are for the sole use of the very wealthy and the emergency services.

Was the world ever like this poster?

I'm very tempted to ask to see my local Station Master (although in Lewes I wouldn't be entirely surprised if an immaculately-dressed, rather rotund man with mutton chop sideburns and a gleaming pocket watch suddenly emerged from a hidden door).

With no "railfans" to spot, my visit seemed rather pointless. But I perked up when I saw this old London Underground Northern Line carriage:

I love being able to walk around a train carriage that must have carried hundreds of thousands of commuters over several decades of use and relish every detail, from the upholstery of the seats to the advertisements above them.

For me, the real attraction of any museum is the social history. A few years ago I visited the National Railway Museum in York and whilst I could coldly admire the enginering achievements of the various locomotives, the things that really excited me were the Royal Trains through the ages: the opulence of Queen Victoria's carriage, the Art Deco fittings of George VI's and the relative austerity of Elizabeth II's.

This museum was too functional for my tastes and I would have liked to have seen more social history. Parts of the museum felt like a collection of objects thrown together, rather than a curated display with any narrative, and I would imagine that even in the railway community, there aren't that many people interested in signals and signalling devices.

Of course, I could be wrong.

In my ideal railway museum, there would be more of the everyday objects that passengers took for granted until they suddenly disappeared: the Nestle chocolate dispensers, the make-your-own record booths, the platform-ticket machines and the leather window straps of carriages like this one:

Should museums preach to the converted or try and engage the uninterested? The best should be able to do both, presenting displays that are accessible but not dumbed-down.

But I'm not complaining. After having the second oldest building to myself in the morning, I went on to enjoy being the sole occupant of a museum. I felt like an aristocrat, relishing the privilege of a private viewing. Do I want these places to get their act together and attract more visitors?

Probably not.


Roy Schulze said...

Surely you mean to draw attention to the "relative austerity" of Elisabeth II's railway carriage, not that of Elizabeth I, her first cousin, 14 times removed! But, regardless, I am still enjoying the blog.

Steerforth said...

Damn! And I proof-read it.

However, I like the idea of a Tudor royal train - thatched beams and wood panelling, with the odd lute lying around.

I could pretend to be Scottish and point out that the Queen is Elizabeth I up there, but I think I'll just swallow my pride and correct it ;)

Martin H. said...

Elizabethan carriages aside, I take issue with those who say nostalgia isn't what it was. I spend a lot of my time immersed in it, and even if the world wasn't actually the way it's portrayed in the posters, the idealised version is still preferable to today's mess.

Boadicea said...

I had no intention of posting a comment till I saw the word verification taunting me: "icant" ...well, actually I can (with correction of punctuation etc) so there!
But I know what you mean about the social history part of museums. I think the scary thing (in the "Oh my God, I'm getting old!" sense) is not realising that what you thought was normal has now been relegated to history!

Steerforth said...

I'm glad you did comment. Yes, it's shocking when you see everyday things from your past in museums.

Martin - I can never tell if today's mess is really worse than yesterday's, or whether we're hankering after the certainties of the past.

Like you, I'm obsessed with the past - both my own and other people's - and I'm never entirely sure what my motives are.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I couldn't agree more with your views on museums and nostalgia.

Though I don't like museums at the opposite extreme either - ie so touchy-feely, interactive and child-friendly, they've lost their sense of history and there's nothing for the adults to look at! (sic The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich since its regrettable overhaul)

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy your posts, which are both thoughtful and thought-provoking. How lovely to read your posts about your visit to Essex. It's nice to see someone approach the area with an open mind, because much of the time Essex gets a bad rap. My husband was born in Epsom, and his sister and nieces and nephews now live in Essex. But even the passport checker at Heathrow the last time we visited said, "Epsom is much nicer than Essex -- why aren't you going there instead?" Remind him about Constable Country, etc. didn't seem to impress him at all. So thank you for your kind words about a little known part of the county.
Canadian Chickadee

Steerforth said...

Thank you Ms Chickadee. I must admit that I have also been very unkind about Essex in the past - it's not really my cup of tea. But there are hidden gems too and for all its faults, there's more to Essex than meets the eye.

Jon H said...

That looks like the Westbury White Horse in that illustration at the end - I used to love in Bratton which is just under it, and the view fro the railway line would have been exactly as shown.

Stephen said...

I love the old-style railways, there seemed to be so much more style and glamour about travelling by rail which seems to have gone now in this utilitarian age.
There is a fantastic steam locomotive railway here in Dorset which runs from near Corfe castle down to Swanage. It's fantastic. It's run by volunteers and all the stations have been restored to how they were in the 50s-60s. I took the train into Corfe Castle and it was wonderful. It feels like you are on the set of the railway children when you approach the station through the rolling green hills with the castle perched on the hillside. The station is immacuately restored and there is even a station master resplendant in his uniform!

Between Channels said...

I love the old signalling equipment you photographed. A job I'd quite fancy if I got a real fire, armchair and stove for cocoa - I must dig out my copy of 'the Signalman' nearer Christmas and consider the career change.

Thomas at My Porch said...

I was just at the London Transport Museum for the first time since about 1992 and I must say I was a bit disappointed. I felt like there wasn't enough information for someone with more than just a passing interest. And I am a little tired of museums trying to engage children at the expense of adults. Face it, kids only want to push buttons and see things light up. It doesn't really need to communicate anything. Why can't they just make a room for kids with lots of buttons and things to touch and break, and leave the real museum to those of us who actually want to learn something.