Age of the train

Peter Gibson of Monkwearmouth Museum, Sunderland in the new flower beds
Peter Gibson of Monkwearmouth Museum, Sunderland in the new flower beds
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It’s full steam ahead for a new display at Monkwearmouth Station Museum, which means there is more to see and do than ever before. Katy Wheeler hopped on board to see for herself.

FOR the past 160 years Monkwearmouth Station Museum has witnessed some of Sunderland’s most historic moments.

From the rise and fall of “Railway King” George Hudson, a Zeppelin bombing and the construction of the Stadium of Light – it has all happened at or in the shadow of this Wearside landmark.

Once at the centre of industry in Sunderland – a vital means by which goods were transported in and out of the city – it is today a thriving visitor attraction, welcoming 30,000 people through her doors each year.

On Saturday the museum’s two carriages will once more open to the public in their new enclosed home at the venue’s sidings, the area where goods were once off-loaded from wagons.

“The station had a sidings area for handling goods,” said Martin Routledge, keeper of history at Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums. “Here they could be craned on and off carriages and taken on to their final destination.

“This area was taken over in 1977 and since then the carriages have been on open display and open to the elements.

“The area was looking derelict and we wanted to do something to smarten it up.

“It’s great that people can get into the carriages and have a look around them.

“This a great site. Apart from the National Railway Museum in York, it’s one of the few in the country which is next to a working railway line.”

The new enclosed display is a means of incorporating interactive features, while also helping to preserve the historic carriages, a former wagon used to transport cars and a former goods brake van.

Around £345,000, from supporters including the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Heritage Lottery Fund, and three years of labour have been ploughed into the project to preserve these shining examples of our proud industrial heritage.

Before the country’s roadways developed, all goods sold in shops in Sunderland would have been brought into the town by rail or sea.

John Clayson, keeper of science and industry at Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums, says the carriages’ importance should not be underestimated.

“The covered carriage goes back to the early days of railways.

“There were no taxis in those days and people wanted to take their own transport with them when they travelled.

“This type of carriage would be used to transport a horse and carriage, and later, cars.”

He added: “These two vehicles are historic, they are the only ones of their type which have a secure future. Others are out in the open and face damage.”

The National Motor Museum in Hampshire has loaned the venue a 1963 Rover 110 to illustrate how a car would have been transported in the Covered Carriage Truck, the earliest surviving example of its kind.

Its neighbour carriage in the display, a goods brake van in which a guard would control rear brakes, dates back to 1916 and in its day was the Rolls Royce of guards carriages.

It set the pace for the development of goods brake vans, before ending its working days at Wearmouth Colliery.

John said: “The railways are really significant: going back to the early days of Sunderland when coal began to be taken to the port, to the way it opened up the country, and the world, for people to travel.

“From the 1850s ordinary people could aspire to travel to places like London.

“It would be costly and you may only do it once a year, but before the railways it would have been totally impossible.

“In Sunderland it opened up Roker and Seaburn to tourists, it brought a thriving leisure economy to Sunderland.”

Communities developed around and within the railways, which often, even today, stir a real passion in people.

John added: “People celebrate the age of the steam and it’s a real evocative symbol of railways.

“There is a sense of romance about it, but it was also a very hard life.

“People worked long hours and it was a really oily, grimy, gritty way of life.”

As well as the carriages being given a new lease of life, the grassland around it has been transformed.

With the help of the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, the museum’s deputy manager Peter Gibson has transformed overgrown grassed areas on the site to create a Victorian cottage garden and a wild meadow. The flowers planted, such as roses, feverfew, foxgloves and purple sprouting broccoli, are similar to those that would have been grown in a typical station master’s garden.

l The new wagon shed will be officially opened between noon and 3pm on Saturday.

 Wearsiders are invited to go along and take part in a host of activities.