The capital’s only steam railway is situated at the Kew Bridge Steam Museum. Standing in an old waterworks, the museum is independently operated, staffed by eager and enthusiastic volunteers. The Waterworks Railway, as it’s called, is only one aspect of the museum. They’re also gifted with working steam engines of every size from matchbox to massive, functional (if smelly) early diesels, a water tower and Thames Water propaganda gallery examining the history London’s water supply.
The only available grown-ups ticket is an annual pass costing £9.50. With different engines working on different weekends, visitors might need to make multiple trips to see everything — particularly the seldom-operated, 90 inch, ‘Cornish Giant’.
Arriving not long after midday, I set a course for the Waterworks Railway. With the track running to around over a hundred meters, and the train traveling at little more than a brisk walking pace, it’s not really comparable with the more functional steam railways found outside the capital. It is, however, quite cute. Throngs of children possessed an infectious and palpable excitement about the experience. At one point, an inquisitive young tyke asked his custodian whether the grey substance being emitted from the train’s chimney was steam. Answering confidently and assertively, as do all dads when posed questions by their offspring, everyone aboard was informed it was, indeed, steam.
Until the driver, who’d overheard, swiftly decided to issue a correction. “It’s steam if it’s white,” he began, “and any other colour is smoke”. He continued with some fascinating technical nomenclature: “When the regulator is engaged [or possibly released — I can’t remember], then it’ll turn white — that’s steam!” Three lessons there, then: one for cocky dads; one for me about note-taking; and a steam train factoid for everybody else.
Two locomotives, Thomas Wicksteed and Alister, provide traction on the Waterworks Railway. Alister, a three-cylinder diesel, pulls the train along on the outward journey. Thomas, a 2009 steam engine, works light around the track to pick the train up for its return journey. He is a narrow gauge ‘Wren’ class locomotive, a model originally built by Kerr Stuart of Stoke-on-Trent (and, later, the Hunslet Engine Company of Leeds). Wrens were the company’s smallest engine, yet biggest seller, and were often to be found in waterworks and similar yards.
The museum’s yard is in the shadow of a water tower. A telephone, affixed to a wall, plays a short history of the tower and recounts the experiences of two chaps who were employed by the water board in the olden days. From the top, views of St. Paul’s and Crystal Palace were possible — but London wasn’t quite so built-up back then. The tower is opens for adventurous climbers twice a year; nobody at the museum seemed to know when the next occasion might be, though. Which is a bit of a shame.
Back inside the museum, a giant swam of miniature model makers had set themselves up on almost every square inch of floorspace. An assortment of picnic and artist’s tables were covered by impractically small boats, steam trains, villages and more besides. It would have all been fairly harmless if it wasn’t for the small matter of them getting in the bloody way of every single one of the museum’s actual exhibits. There was a bring and buy sale on, too. People had mostly brought and very few were buying. If you want old videos and books about trains, you now know where to go.
On the subject of non-core exhibits, the Musical Museum is just down the road from KBSM. For reasons better known to someone else, an unattended stall with some vintage gramophones had been shoved in a corner — along with a sign inviting any budding retro-obsessed, steam-freak, DJs to have a go. I slammed some Gracie Fields on. It was proper weapon.
A gallery examining the history of London’s water supply takes up a fair amount of space in the museum. It felt, to me, like little more than a puff-piece for Thames Water — although I couldn’t find mention that they’d sponsored or produced the exhibition (not that I’d looked very hard). There’s some retro domestic appliances on the wall, though:
In the grounds, but outside the museum itself, is The Forge. It’s home to a couple of blacksmiths, one of whom is local artist Shelley Thomas. I was stood photographing the giant Angel Estilo when Shelley, his creator, came out for a chat. She told me Estilo had been commissioned for the millennium, to soar by the side of the Thames in Feltham. He’s had his wings clipped, though, and now loiters in the corner of the museum’s car park. Shelley’s trying to buy him back from the council so he can be elevated to somewhere more suitable.
I’ll probably use my ticket twice more: once to go up the water tower, a second time to see the giant Cornish engine in operation. Fingers crossed the bring and buy crowd will have packed up and moved on by then.
More photos on flickr.