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Last Updated Saturday 28th April 2012

Beamish and the "Big Three"
or The Great North Steam Fair 2012
by Andrew Waddington

In the last few years, Beamish, the Living Museum of the North has become a ‘must-see’ destination for anyone with an interest in traditional British trams. The ambitious transport events held at this location have featured the trams in increasingly prominent roles, with vehicles from other museums joining the resident fleet for some unforgettable events. Two such events now take place annually, and the first for 2012 was the ‘Great North Steam Fair’, held over four days from Thursday 12th to Sunday 15th April inclusive. As the title suggests, the main focus is a gathering of working steam vehicles of all shapes and sizes, but there is always plenty of interest in other areas and the tramway is no exception. Last year’s big draw was Manchester 765 from the Heaton Park Tramway, and this year it was the turn of the Merseyside Tramway Preservation Society to steal the limelight with a guest appearance from the magnificent Birkenhead 20. Andrew Waddington reports.

For me personally, the main aim of this event was to see and ride on a trio of trams which I dubbed the ‘Big Three’. Being a short-term visitor borrowed specifically for this event, Birkenhead 20 was an obvious magnet for enthusiasts, but I was equally to keen on the other recent arrival, Blackpool ‘Boat’ 233, due in no small part to British Trams Online’s involvement in the project to restore this car to its 1930s livery in time for this event. Finally, having not visited the Museum since last September, I had not yet had the pleasure of sampling Sunderland 101, the former Blackpool Balloon car 703, and as this would be its first appearance at a major transport event in its new home it too was a major draw for many people. I was obviously hoping that all three of these trams would be in service for my visit, although I was in no doubt that this could be asking a lot – especially as plans were announced beforehand to operate a four-car service consisting entirely of open toppers, providing the weather played ball.

It was therefore something of a mixed blessing that the event got off to a rather soggy start on Thursday 12th April, with periods of heavy rain halting plans to have four open trams in service. Visiting Birkenhead 20 was therefore joined by Blackpool 31 and the more weather-appropriate Leeds 6 and Sunderland 101, with Blackpool ‘Boat’ 233 sadly confined to the depot for most of the day. Thankfully the weather improved sufficiently before the end of the day to allow 233 to enter service at Beamish for the very first time at around 3:30pm, and it was highly appropriate in view of our own sponsorship deal on this tram, that the British Trams Online webmaster was amongst the passengers on its maiden voyage.

Happily the weather did improve for the remainder of the event and although there were further heavy showers, the Boat car did make it into service on each day. The poor weather did have one advantage as it encouraged the use of the fellow LTT-owned tram, Sunderland 101/Blackpool 703 on all four days. Slightly less welcome was the decision to operate all trams in the same direction around the site, as pioneered last year during the seaside-themed ‘Power from the Past’ event. Although this service format severely limits the opportunities to photograph two trams together, it does create a very regular service which casual visitors probably appreciate, and the result is that you are never kept waiting long before a tram turns up. In heavy rain, this is certainly no bad thing!

My turn to visit the event finally came on Saturday 14th April, a day of changeable weather although the start was quite sunny. On arrival at the Museum I was greeted by two welcome sights: one of a deer crossing the road into the car park, and secondly the more expected sight of Blackpool ‘Boat’ 233 approaching the Entrance. After entering through the newly extended entrance exhibition area (which incidentally looks very impressive), it was straight to the tram stop to wait for 233 to arrive – just in case the good weather didn’t last! I was delighted to find that all of the ‘Big Three’ were out in service, and after starting the day with a bit of boating on board 233, I enjoyed full round trips on both Sunderland 101 and Birkenhead 20. Each tram certainly has its own charms and all of them performed admirably on the Beamish circuit, with 233 making easy work of the hills and curves as if its period of storage at Rigby Road had never happened!

As for the other trams on site; Newcastle 114 was the only member of the home fleet to be used on the Saturday and I sampled a ride on its open top deck, which was cut short by a sudden hailstorm! Thanks to those who encouraged me to go upstairs – I really am being led astray more by my fellow tram enthusiasts these days! Further rides on 20, 101 and 233 were also greatly enjoyed although going upstairs on the Balloon car and seeing the empty space created by the removal of its end bench seats made me feel a little sad. Of course the most important fact is that this popular tram is now back in service, and hopefully the reduced weight at each end will help to extend its working life.

Leeds 6 spent the whole day parked in front of the tram sheds, despite hopes that it may come out late in the day as a service extra. Blackpool 31 had joined Beamish 196, currently under overhaul and separated from its truck, inside the lean-to shed, whilst Sunderland 16 and Gateshead 10 had been moved to the recently installed depot track 4 where they were parked in front of Sheffield 264. As this line has not yet been wired, the trams stored on it are a little harder to access, so it was pleasing that these two long-term residents had been placed there for the duration of the event to allow the more recent arrivals to enjoy the limelight. Of course 10 is likely to be one of the stars of the next big event at Beamish when it will hopefully be repainted as Grimsby & Immingham 26, and it should be also take centre stage next year for the Beamish tramway’s 40th anniversary year.

Moving back to the steam fair, and naturally there was plenty of interest away from the tramway over the course of this event with a huge variety of vehicles in action around the 300-acre museum site, naturally including a large number of steam engines. Some of the highlights included a beautifully restored Scarborough coach, the impressive steam crane ‘Duke of York’ and the ‘Sentinel’ steam lorry, which has become a regular attraction at Beamish events. There was also a chance to see Newcastle trolleybus no. 501, owned by Beamish Museum, but which has spent an extended period operating at Sandtoft followed by a visit to the East Anglia Transport Museum. It is hoped that this local vehicle may carry passengers at Beamish at some time in the future, but for this event it was on static display in front of the tram depot having only returned home a few days earlier.

Other steam-powered stars included the Bluebell Railway’s tank engine ‘Captain Baxter’ making its second trip to Beamish in as many years. Whereas in 2011 this engine was demonstrated on the colliery railway alongside resident ‘Coffee Pot’ no. 1, this time Baxter was in action at Rowley Station, being used to haul passenger trains on the short railway around the back of the 1913 Town. The resident engine was also used for a few double-headed runs to the delight of the many visiting railway enthusiasts. For those who prefer smaller engines, a newly completed narrow gauge railway at the colliery village was up and running just in time for the event, and was playing host to visiting steam and petrol locomotives.

All too soon, the day was drawing to a close and after a short (and very cold) filming session on Pockerley Bank, capturing some scenes of the visiting trams and other vehicles on their last runs of the day, it was time to head for home. As is always the case at Beamish, the day flew by but I was more than happy at having ridden on all of the four trams in service – in particular the three that I had wanted. Add to that the wonderful variety of other vehicles being demonstrated around the Museum, and my first ever ride on the Rowley railway with ‘Captain Baxter’, and you have another absolutely superb event from this outstanding Museum. Thanks must go to everyone involved in organising such a large event, and of course to those who provided visiting vehicles to add to the excitement: particularly the Merseyside Tramway Preservation Society for bringing Birkenhead 20, which did its owners proud.

I was also lucky enough to speak with the Keeper of Transport, Paul Jarman, who has been a leading light in the development of transport collections at Beamish as well as the spectacular events for which the Museum is becoming famous. From talking to Paul, his passion for our transport heritage is clear to see and with many more ambitious ideas for the future, I am sure that Beamish and its trams will continue to prosper, with the 40th anniversary of the Museum tramway in 2013 likely to be a particularly memorable occasion. Here’s to their next event - and maybe I will see you there!

Also on British Trams Online
Gallery 290: Beamish Great North Steam Fair 2012

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