Friday, 26 November 2010

Today Fiona is in the NRM

Just about now and Fiona should be arriving at York. There is a CILIP event taking place at the NRM and Fiona is attending. Wearing two hats. She is a Chartered CILIP member and also sits on their Chartership Board. The opportunity is being taken to do some networking and show folk elements of the Forsythe Collection. CILIP translates when expanded into what was The Library Association. That is the professional body of library and information professionals.

A little bit further ahead and I have been asked to do a 20 minute introduction to the Forsythe Collection on 1st February 2011 here . And whilst wrapping up with our news we now have a new front portal to our webpresence. My old site continues but you are invited to start at . And because Facebook's coverage of our local bus operator Go North East is the best way to catch up on what actually happens with their buses, Fiona did her sales pitch as she was already there and got me aboard yesterday. We are here!/profile.php?id=100001912940850&v=info so come and make friends.

Friday, 30 July 2010

A Stick of Rock

In the old days - before I was 50 and the Forsythe Collection departed our house for the NRM - my wife and I were engaged quite regularly by the unsolicited and/or anonymous donation. Packets and on occasion boxes would arrive by mail or appear mysteriously on the doorstep. Some fascinating material arrived this way as did a lot of duplicates which now form our stock. It was always interesting to guess what desperation (with female family members?) led to the anonymous arrivals.

A few days ago and a different take on the same theme arrived. An unsolicited stick of NRM rock in a jiffybag. Certainly unsolicited but not anonymous. An NRM postcard and letter completed the package. These were from Sam Pointon who had gone to the trouble to personally write to us and send some rock. How nice.

In fact this is the outworking of one of the NRM's cleverest marketing ploys. About a year ago Andrew Scott's position was advertised consequent upon his imminent retirement. Sam wrote in to apply and the powers that be looked kindly on his initiative. He was appointed Director of Fun and since then has fronted several media calls.

There's a serious and justified aspect here. The vast majority of museums need to be fun. Not quite every one. It would be a bit out of taste at Dachau or the Ossuary of Verdun. But make no mistake railway museums should be fun. We have our own 10 year old daughter and we have just swopped Middle School. The old one was not fun enough. The new one opens its website with this quote "At Ovingham we try to make learning fun". The school's Head of ICT also runs a Dr Who club with working Dalek and got an entire class to preview the new Dr Who exhibition at Newcastle's Life Centre.

Congratulations then to both the NRM and Sam for working together to make the museum Fun. Even the apparently dry (not yet dusty I hope) shelves housing the Forsythe Collection hold some potential. British Railways and other operators knew about making the railway fun. There is a whole Railriders file in the Forsythe Collection. From earlier times there are handbills about trainspotting. Similar ephemera from the Ian Allan organisation is preserved in the collection. How sad it is that trainspotting is denigrated sometimes today. It was good fun and one of the songs in the Ballard of John Axon well encapsulated that.

If you are in the NRM this summer look out for fun. It might involve Harry Potter who has had a great impact on railway enthusiasm and model railways. I have my own Olton Hall masquerading as Hogwarts Castle. And there is something about Flying Owls in the Great Hall. Is that another A3?

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Mallard at Shildon

Readers here will recognise I have a major and personal interest in NRM York, something like 100 metres of shelving. However York is 100 miles away and the Shildon Locomotion outstation is about 30. That's fortunate and the goings on at Shildon are interesting and worth following. The prospect therefore that Tornado would take Mallard to meet Joem in a family get together yesterday afternoon was very tempting. Fiona drove myself and Clare - after her Hexham swim - down to Shildon. The train had run slightly early and we arrived about 10 minutes after the real action. We were in enough time to see Tornado leave and hear a chorus of chime whistles. And we managed a picture of Mallard in her traveling condition. A lot of people were losing their cool trying to take photos as large numbers of people wanted their own personal picture up close with the great icon. The result was that a clear unhampered picture was almost impossible. That does not phase me. The people watching is just as enjoyable. Our picture managed to work because whenever a TV crew were nearby everyone had to clear off! I think the lady is Look North's Weathergirl Hannah Bayman about to do a live broadcast. The fact that the sun shone and that a huge crowd turned out will rightly make NRM management pleased. These railway engines are stars and they have all the pulling power of those who walk the red carpet. So I congratulate the NRM. They had publicised the journey in advance with movement times readily available. Elsewhere in my blog it is interesting to note a comment at . We do raise in this blog matters which are worth comment and debate. It is not just myself who thinks this, I am being told that by folk with some influence. But that debate does not seem one that the NRM is rushing to engage in. That is a pity. When you change a major loan policy for 2 1/2 years or prepare to turn the Great Hall upside down, a mechanism for debating with your informed audience would seem useful.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Spare a thought

All sorts of things wind their way into the Forsythe household. Fiona went to a local watermill and came back with Towpath Talk Issue 56 May 2010. Readers of the blog might think we are timetable obsessives who have nothing else to do in life but worry about things on two rails. We believe in fighting the corner strongly for issues we take up but the reality for anyone who enters our house and eyes the shelves or follows our diaries is that we maintain a very diverse range of interests. In my life waterways and boats came first as I was brought up on the Norfolk Broads. So whilst I truly think that the National Railway Museum has to be kept up to the mark and has to fight strongly to get the best deal it can, I cannot avoid saying how fortunate that the tale of the national waterways museum is not that of the NRM. In history they stem from the same root. The nationalised British Transport Commission enabled both the railway and waterways elements of its operations in the 1960s to have museums. There was Clapham in London for land transport and Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire. Today Stoke Bruerne is one of three sister museums. The others are at Gloucester and Ellesmere Port. Their collections are easily of the order of the National Railway Museum. British Waterways remains the only nationalised operator still in being from the 1948 creations. Yet as this issue of Towpath Talk (and I think the recent TV series "Behind the scenes at the museum" which I missed) elaborates, the last few years have been totally torrid. Thankfully 2009 saw some optimism and visitors grew by 25%. But to only 70,000 across three sites. And no free admission. That is awful!

The core point is whilst railways, ships and coal mining all feature properly funded national museums, the three waterways museums despite being spun out of a state organisation have been cast adrift. This is completely unfair in the total context of what the waterways meant in British history and in our leading industrial revolution, nor does it do justice to the astonishing revival of the waterways network since the 1960s. And whilst all sorts of rescue plans have been hatched, exhibits of real importance have rotted and crumbled away.

The article argues that in a very bad situation, The Waterways Trust has achieved a great deal. It has not closed any museum, it is back on the up, it has no central grant, but has created a whole series of new and positive local relationships. It is receiving recognition from museum peers for its work. The future for public museums looking ahead is evidently going to be very tough and it is really sad that in the last few years of plenty, the neglect of the waterways museums was allowed to happen. I think someone could find a fascinating study in comparing and contrasting public policy and the National Railway Museum and the waterways museums taking as a start date 1948. Would it not be fascinating to be able to speak to Tony Hirst and Tom Rolt about this?

If someone undertaking that needed a little bit of worrying context examining the history of ISCA the International Sailing Craft Association and the Exeter Maritime Museum would be instructive. In that instance there was no reprieve and the collection has wandered around Britain subsequently. I think Eyemouth is the current home?

Monday, 7 June 2010

The Stirling Single and its Tender

This time it is the Railway Magazine's July 2010 fascinating feature about GNR tender 1002 which has caught my eye. What an epic tale! The Stirling Single GNR No. 1 preserved since 1907 is a true icon of Victorian locomotive design. By a quirk of fate it has spent all its preserved life attached to the wrong tender, not one it worked with in service. Now thanks to the dogged determination of several individuals, it looks set within the next year to be re-united to the correct tender. In the first place we must thank Messrs Boddy and Leech who back in the mid 1960s, realised the error, discovered a correct survivor and ensured its then preservation (the exact narrative of where it then went and who "owned" it could be expanded I don't doubt). Anyway, neglect in preservation then followed until the Gresley Society Chairman took up its cause. Malcolm Crawley evidently would not take no for an answer. He was in absolute command of the facts and of the intellectual requirement that something had to be done. So to the moral of the story. Never listen to a no from the NRM (and I know that too in the cause of publicity ephemera). Persevere, lobby, refuse to go quiet, and eventually as the article narrates so long as your argument is sound, U turns are possible. The tender has now gone to Locomotion Shildon for full restoration and for myself I have no doubts Andrew Coulls there will appreciate its importance and why its restoration and attachment to GNR No.1 will be a worthy moment in the annals of railway preservation.

Monday, 31 May 2010

NRM+ and loans

I found myself reading two passages of NRM "policy" recently and reflecting on how they worked together. In the NRM Review Spring 2010 p7 the new director Steve Davies writes about NRM+. This is the current flagship project to redesign the Great Hall "thematically".

I quote "Another element receiving major attention is that of what to do with the stock displaced by the NRM+ project. Partners are currently being sought.....". The following sentences make clear that a quite extensive loan operation will be required to rehouse elements of the collection displaced by the new displays.

The second statement appears in Railway Magazine July 2010 p6. One of the museum's registars Helen Batchelor: "In order to meet our deadlines (for NRM+), we will not be able to take forward any new loan requests for exhibitions or events until December 2012". At face value there is some tension. Possibly to be reconciled in making a difference between timespans. Whilst the museum is fixing new homes for a number of exhibits it will not support a programme of short term loans.

Some questions flow from these statements. On occasion in the past the museum's press statements have been at odds with themselves. Many large organisations operate a press regime where all statements to press by officers have to be approved first through the press office to ensure apparent tensions like this do not appear. I wonder just what the NRM policy is about museum officers speaking to the press?

A larger question perhaps relates to a stock comment about the museum. Its aspirations can exceed its abilities. In the same feature by Steve Davies "NRM+....will see the museum adopt a thematic approach............that will set the standard for museums around the world to emulate". No shortage of aspiration there. As our blog has previously suggested the Dutch national railway museum at Utrecht undertook a comprehensive redisplay in which the thematic approach was given its full head. In no way do I deny the case for doing this. However as the Dutch option shows, the result tends to be very expensive. My understanding is that the Dutch spent far more money than the NRM is likely to. One reason for the expense is the sheer size of locomotive exhibits and deploying them within themed displays.

I rather think I am of the opinion that undertaking a themed display within the Great Hall is to insert a fundamental tension. The Great Hall was a locomotive shed. It is a cathedral like structure and the large exhibits behave like icons or major art pieces. They are objects of worship. It will require some monumental design to manage to retain the atmosphere of the Great Hall and insert a comprehensively themed display. I am not saying it cannot be done just that this is a great challenge and likely to cost accordingly. One wonders whether there were other solutions to producing a themed display about Britain's railway history elsewhere on the York site?

Meanwhile whilst this is being resolved, what of the NRM's other work? As the opening quotes indicate, evidently an amount of normal service is being dispensed with. The problem here is posed by the question just when does the NRM offer normal service? There is always (and probably always will be) some special factor which distorts the situation. From relatively recent times I think of the creation of Search Engine or the re-roofing of the Great Hall. I know I have a bundle of correspondence with a variety of explanations that have been offered for why "x" cannot be done. They've included Britain's Olympic Bid and yes NRM+.

The real reason why the NRM at times simply struggles to do what most folk would think should be its bread and butter like loaning exhibits is that it does not employ the right number of specialist staff. And as this blog has shown previously that is because it is the national museum that does the most for the least. A verdict which I would not be completely proud of.

I don't doubt at all Steve Davies determination to up the NRM's game and he comes with a background of subject interest and achievement to suggest he can make a difference. But to succeed he is going to have to eliminate some structural conflicts buried deep within the NRM and these comments about future loans are possibly a window into those.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Rail Industry National Archive

Following hard on the heels of the COPAC News, previous post, came news of another substantial development at Search Engine. 15 years after privatisation got into gear, the rail industry and the museum have made an agreement about what happens to the resulting records. As a privatised industry, the National Archives (formerly PRO) have no interest in new railway records any longer. I will reproduce verbatim the press release that came here on the 6th April. It is quite a coup for the museum and its archivist Tim Procter. One uses the imagination to see how much Search Engine's workload will expand and its team with it. Meantime in the immediate future do not expect me to blog too much about my own engagement. Whilst the new director gets his feet under the table, arrangements are being reviewed and for the foreseeable I do not anticipate making regular visits to Search Engine.

"*/Establishment of a Rail Industry National Archive/*

A national archive is to be established for today’s rail industry following a ground breaking agreement between the Railway Heritage Committee (RHC) and the National Museum of Science & Industry (NMSI), parent body of the National Railway Museum. The new archive will enable public access to the records of train operators and other rail companies as well as their long term care and conservation.

As they are released by rail companies, records designated by the RHC will be transferred to the care of the National Railway Museum. They will be made available for research in /Search Engine/ at the Museum in York and at the Science Museum Libraries and Archives in London and at Wroughton, near Swindon. Material which needs to remain commercially confidential for a period will be preserved in deep storage in the Museum’s new purpose-built archive repository.

The agreement between RHC and NMSI was triggered by concerns that, as companies such as GNER and Railtrack ceased to operate, their surviving records would become fragmented and inaccessible, and the story of a vibrant period of railway history would be lost.

By providing document transfer facilities between /Search Engine /and other NMSI sites, it will also become much easier for people from all over the UK to access these important archives.

Railway Heritage Committee Chairman Peter Ovenstone said:

“Railways were Britain’s gift to the world, and we have world class museums where locomotives and other railway artefacts are preserved. This can now be matched by the comprehensive preservation of and access to the records of today’s rapidly changing railway, thanks to the cooperation and foresight of NMSI.”

National Railway Museum Director, Steve Davies MBE said:

“/Search Engine/, our railway archive based at York, is already a popular and valuable resource for historians and academics into the history of Britain’s railway down to 1997. The Rail Industry National Archive will ensure that the records continue unbroken into the period of privatisation – a unique and continuous record of the changes in business and society that the railway brought to Britain.”

The National Archives at Kew keep records from the British Rail era and before, but this changed on privatisation as their role is to keep public records, not those from today’s private sector.

Records and plans relating to the railway lines, buildings and structures of the current network will continue to be kept at Network Rail’s base in York, where most are still required as working documents".

Tuesday, 16 March 2010


I read that the library holdings of the NRM are now accessible through COPAC. This is a big step forward and certain of my own books surface (though not all Tempus books of mine that the museum should have, I am sure I have seen From Tilbury to Tyneside there?). It is evident that the COPAC linkage will only include the straightforward material. 20,000 books are mentioned, our own collection parted with more than 120,000 items. I can think of light years of cataloguing still to do (not just with the Forsythe Collection by any means) before all of what could be classed a library material within the NRM collections appears through COPAC. A thorough reading of the blog here will offer a few leads.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Royal Train Exhibition at Utrecht

An earlier post referred to what was experienced as a stimulating visit to the Dutch National Railway Museum in Utrecht last November. Thanks to the RPSI member email list, a press release from Utrecht has just arrived in my in-box. I will reproduce it. Then let it sink in. It is good that the NRM is participating but reflect on the passion, enthusiasm and resource that is being delivered to make this event in Utrecht happen. It is high up in the order of magnitude. Will these trains arrive by rail or by road?


The exhibition "King Class, Majestic Journeys" will open on 15th April to 5th September in the Netherlands Railway Museum in Utrecht.

The Dutch Railway Museum is organising a large international exhibition of royal trains from around the world under the slogan: "Top Class, Majestic Journeys”. For the first time in history, royal trains from various European countries can be admired in a single exhibition. It will offer the visitor a unique insight into the luxurious style of travel the European monarchs had once used. The exhibition "King Class, Majestic Travel" is from 15th April to 5th September in the Netherlands Railway Museum in Utrecht.

Train carriages from all the great royal houses of Europe will be seen in Utrecht. On display will be trains, cars and interiors from the UK, Ireland [state carriage 351], Belgium, Portugal, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Austria, Bulgaria and Sweden. One of the absolute gems of the exhibition is one of the oldest surviving royal carriages in the world, which was used by the British Queen, is from Adelaide and 1842. The Portuguese national railway museum in Santarém has kindly provided a complete train from 1858 which was used by Queen Pia of Portugal. Another gem is coming from Vienna, in the form of a railcar used by another monarch, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, better known as Empress Sissi.

Of course, also on exhibit are those used over the years by the royal court in the Netherlands. Thanks to financial support from the Bank Giro Lottery, the railway museum is to recreate a copy of the originally constructed in 1864 for Queen Anna Pavlovna saloon car. Visitors to this exhibition, the premier class will receive a truly magnificent way. After a brief introduction to the etiquette of kings in the royal waiting room of the museum they will run past on the red carpet at the glittering royal carriages.

In addition, they meet during their visit to historical figures who know how to report in detail about the journeys of the monarch. A recurring theme of the exhibition is the stimulative effect of royal families in the promotion and expansion of the railway. Visitors can also discover how to govern the nature of the monarch, their country, changed over time, often caused by the railroad. Of course, the royal train travellers used for personal purposes, such as driving, for example, to visit family in and around the holidays.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

The Great Glen, Terry Gourvish and Once Upon a Tide

As intimated in my previous blog, Wednesday 10th February looked set to be filled with an NRM visit. The cold was under control with Lemsip. The railways were performing, the frost was hard and the snow was falling. Our car went no further than Prudhoe station car park. Working from a Northumberland hillside an awful lot of cultural and historical life passes us by. I had some excitement therefore at the prospect of hearing Terry Gourvish on the practice of rail privatisation and clutching an invite for the evening opening of Once Upon a Tide , a new temporary exhibition focused on the Harwich Hoek Van Holland rail owned ferries which has been worked up in association with NedRail (the part owners of our Northern franchise) and the Utrecht Railway Museum over the last three years. Not only was this the first exhibition launch that we have ever been invited to at the NRM but it also transpired that it would be the first official event at which the new NRM Director Steve Davies officiated.

Arriving for a bite of lunch I used my Friends of the NRM card to get a worthwhile discount. The new director was on the floor of the Great Hall glad handing staff and some visitors, he said Hello to me. An engaged start on day 3. At the site of the exhibition the museum staff were still assembling it, it was ever thus.

So to the afternoon's business: A Century Of Scottish And British Railway Politics first off John McGregor (Open University) '"Trouble in the Glen"? the politics of the Invergarry & Fort Augustus Railway, 1897-1903. This West Highlander delivered an engaging presentation on a bit of geography that throughout the Railway Age attracted railway promoters like insects to a web. Shennaggins is my word for it. All of John, Terry and the IRS staff were gratified for sure at what was a record turnout of some 42 folk for these lectures. Terry's title The Modern Politics of Railway Regulation: the ORR and the SRA, 1997-2005 held a grab your seats presentation underneath dry initials. I found myself making frantic notes including a memorable quote that a Railtrack executive made before the 2001 debacle that Railtrack was "an engineering free company"!!! One member of the audience excitedly shouted out "I was there!". My own summary of what Terry said was "the supreme challenge of finding able managers to take on dubious jobs". "Wise men steered clear". What does this say about the exercise of government? Terry evidenced an argument that personalities do matter and the inability of key players to interact positively in difficult and novel structures ended up counting for much.

Thus the afternoon did not drag and time slipped past to the evening event. I have a clear vested interest having written a book in 2006 largely about the subject called From Tilbury to Tyneside and having just over a year ago worked closely with the NRM to transfer The Forsythe Collection to York's care. It is crammed full of material relating to the exhibition subject. Will there be surprise therefore if I say that my verdict on the exhibition is "curate's egg"? It showed that the NRM evidently has a strong design team. The idea of turning the turntable into a car ferry was inspired (what happens to the shunts?). The idea of showcasing the museum's strong poster collection was inevitable and worthy. A wealth of imagery has come out and is on display. Some of the museum's relevant objects had been moved into the display and rather nice paintings had come on loan from Utrecht. Over in the works the splendid model of SS Arnhem appeared to have been overlooked and perhaps hoping that the NRM's ferry wagon could be used was an optimistic thought. But what I would dearly love someone to explain to me is why go to the effort of securing a collection which could articulate new depths to the presentation and not use a single piece? Just four items would have thrust the sudden take up of St Edmund for war service in 1982, the passenger welcome materials for the Arnhem and her sisters, the stunning sequences of artist signed timetables through these ports, or the introduction of seminal vessels like St Nicholas into the limelight and said to the viewer, the museum holds so much more about this subject. I was also longing to hear a piece of Gilbert and Sullivan! In the 1880s neither train nor steamer were the acme of comfort leading to this quip in Iolanthe of 1882 “tossing about in a steamer from Harwich which is something between a bathing machine and a second class carriage”. It was quoted in From Tilbury to Tyneside. My conclusion was that the exhibition had become led by the designers and that there was some disconnect with the research and curator elements of the museum. I wonder how fair that is?

Aside from the exhibition, these events are often intriguing for reviewing who is present or not as the case may be. Andrew Scott was. So was a good turnout of senior Northern management. Admittedly they did not have far to come but (remembering how cautious I can be about praise) both Fiona and myself were greeted with warmth by these lads and lassies including the soon to move onto Northumbrian Water Heidi Mottram. Accepting that running a franchised railway is not an easy task and that Northern's two predecessors both mucked up, I think I will pay tribute to Northern under Heidi's management. Maybe not everything goes right, but these people have practiced approachability and even hospitality. The Northern Stakeholder event trains have become memorable. I have not worked CLOSELY with these people but both myself and the wife (the Prudhoe station adopter) have worked with them and have played a role in helping the company to generate real station improvements on the Tyne Valley Line and make all trains stop at Prudhoe. That willingness to work away at local detail has been noticeable and has I know been repeated elsewhere across their franchise. Good on you.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Books, Harwich and Western Scotland

The NRM's new director Colonel Steve Davies took up his post on Monday 8th February. His first official function so I am told will be at the opening of the new temporary exhibition Once Upon a Tide which will largely focus on the Harwich route ferries. This opens on Wednesday 10th February, A busy day at the NRM since railway history guru Terry Gourvish is speaking in the afternoon at the Institute of Railway Studies about the ORR and the SRA. Fascinating initials those and certainly controversial not so long ago.

Given a fair wind, some acceptable weather and so long as the wife's cold does not bite me, I hope to be at both these events and may be able to report on them. The exhibition has turned the Great Hall turntable into a car ferry and cements close links between York and Utrecht at various levels (a previous post has referred). It may be both of us manage the exhibition. Since the Forsythe Collection was laden with spot on relevant material, it will be fascinating to see whether any pieces have been used.

Back in 2006 I published a book largely about this subject. It was called From Tilbury to Tyneside. On the book front, yesterday delivered pleasant and positive news. Our first book in what has been a trio about transport publicity was To Western Scottish Waters. This appeared back in 2000 and the initial hardback edition was swiftly followed with a paperback. Now ten years later in a pleasing statement of faith, it is available again in a slightly amended edition published by Amberley Publishing, one of the successors to Tempus. The book arrived here yesterday and readers may buy signed copies here.