Steam dreams

I’ve been pondering stream trains recently. Driving home a few weeks ago we were surprised to see a large crowd of people standing on the railway bridge near us, which goes over the main east coast line. It turned out that they there to watch Tornado, the first new steam train to have been built in Britain for fifty years. Apparently the station was packed, as was the station up at Darlington where it was heading. Then yesterday morning I took Isobel to the National Railway Museum, which is handily just down the road from us. Although we were there at 10.30, within an hour the museum (which is big) was absolutely heaving with families and children. Isobel loved it, which as she comes from a railway family on her mum’s side is presumably genetic.

It got me thinking about the popularity of steam trains in the UK though. As well as the excellent railway museum in York, it now has an outpost in Shildon (Co. Durham), and in the last couple of years a major new museum has opened up in the railway town of Swindon. If anything, stream trains are becoming more popular than ever, which I find fascinating. In the past, the stereotypical steam fan was a weighty fifty-year-old man (almost always a man) who remembered the last days of steam himself and still hankered to be an engine driver. Now the core audience appears to be children; neither they nor their parents are able to remember the glory days of steam, yet we’re still obsessed with it. Obviously, for many of us adults, there is an element of faux-nostalgia for a time and society we don’t remember and probably never existed anyway. It’s no surprise that one of the biggest themes running through the merchandising in the railway museum shop is that of old railway posters, with their imagery of seaside holidays and bucolic countryside. Steam trains evoke a world of Brief Encounter, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Night Mail, the Railway Children and Ivor the Engine, a pre-lapsarian England before Dr Beeching wielded his axe. However, whilst for adults the thought of steam engines might set off this nostalgic riffing, it can’t be true for the children, who presumably just love the steam engines for being big, noisy, smelly and steamy (what’s not to like?).

However, when I’ve travelled abroad I’ve not come across much evidence for the cult of the steam engine in the same way it exists over here. Why is it such a British phenomenon?

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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  1. Well, there\’s the Hogwarts Express to be considered, too. When waxing lyrical about steam engines while lecturing on \”British Culture\” I certainly get looked at as though mad by Belgian undergraduates (but perhaps at that age anybody waxing lyrical about anything trips their blasé switch). But the only time I\’ve actually travelled on a steam train was on the service provided by the Gotlan. Train Association; and this even though there is a similar service in Belgium itelf (more than one, fact: three that I know of but have never got round to visiting).Still, these are no more than minority enthusiasms, like the lace museum or the chocolate museum. Not national obsessions. In fact, in Belgium, the lace museum and the chocolate museum are probably rather more of national obsessions than the railway and tram museums.


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