Railway heritage has been a focus of previous entries looking about my relationship to railways, non-spaces adjacent to railways, lost railways of North Wales and Cheshire, smoking nostalgia, memorials on heritage railways as at the Welshpool and Llanfair Railway and the Llangollen Railway and memorials within sight of railway lines.
Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Didcot Railway Centre, with its focus on the steam heritage of the Great Western Railway but also with a good collection of diesel engines that were active on that diesel weekend. We explored and rode on both of their short lengths of railway track, as well as enjoying the bookshop, an ice cream and an exploration of the engine shed and turntable. I also bought a wonderful hat, only noticing afterwards that my receipt perversely stated that the item was a piece of ‘child’s clothing’. I don’t know what they meant by this!
Built between the Didcot avoiding lines and Didcot railway station on the site of the former engine shed, the heritage site is sandwiched between active railway lines, allowing a wonderful juxtaposition and interaction of new and old.
During my visit (having regularly visited as a child, but not in a long time), I marvelled at the huge and long-running efforts over decades to create recreations and restorations of engines and rolling stock (carriages, wagons etc).
I was also struck by the attention to recreating micro-landscapes of the age of steam: signal boxes, level crossings, platforms, the use of the pre-existing engine sheds, water tower and coal bunker, as well as the deployment of signs, barrows and luggage and much more. Through the signs in particular, large tracts of south-west and southern-central England are distilled into the Didcot railway centre.
Three dimensions of Didcot came to me in a very enjoyable visit with two offspring – Adah and Tobias – and my dad, Phil Williams.
Originating in the 19th century and building on traditions of naming maritime craft, railway heritage seems to have a distinct idea of personalising engines with numbers, nameplates but also affording personalities to their entire form. This applies to steam and diesel engagines and is taken to childish extremes in the Rev W Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine and its copies. This plays itself out in the special Thomas days at railway heritage sites and lines, but also in the affinity and engagement with engines by their drivers, enthusiasts and visitors. From broad-gauge engines on display like The Iron Duke and Fire Fly to diesels like the wonderful Deltic (Class 55) – the express engines that hauled passengers from London to Edinburgh until 1978 – engine personalities are everywhere and active for working engines and rolling stock as well as those in various states of (dis)repair and decay. Here, medieval sites and medieval kings play an important part in legitimising and historicising the age of steam. Some engines are treated like hallowed ‘living’ ancestors by enthusiasts, a personification of inanimate things that is far removed from the simplistic Thomas the Tank Engine literal animation of engines.
Displays of Artefacts
Rail heritage sites like Didcot also encourage the use of signs and relics as portals into the past, so that at Didcot there are displays of artefacts in the open-air, staged arrangements of artefacts to commemorate through fragments rather than replicated spaces. These include signs, but also fragments of steam engines: boilers and wheels.
Creating Railway Ancestors
Finally, the most explicit form of memorialisation are memorial benches and a memorial garden in a private corner of the site. Plaques commemorate those linked to the foundation and running of the steam heritage enterprise.
Railway heritage is certainly an environment in which experience is at the forefront in the creation of social memories of a lost nostalgic past. Conventional rail history is subsumed in this landscape where experiencing rail travel and environments in the past takes centre-stage. Indeed, experience has been the driving force (forgive the pun) in the enthusiasm and support for these living museums. As well as creating personifications of engines and displays of past signs, installing the cherished dead of the charity in this landscape is an overlooked aspect of these environments. Witnessed by the living and perhaps evoking the sense that the spirits of the dead still enjoy the rides of the engines and watching from the benches, memorial benches draw on this broader experiential mnemonic tradition.