Manchester L53 at Beamish May 2009

On 28th to 31st May inclusive, Beamish Museum staged a new event entitled ‘Power From the Past’. The idea of this event was to show machinery that existed during the time periods that Beamish represents (1825 and 1913), and most excitingly for tram enthusiasts, this included the visit of a very special tramcar. Andrew Waddington visited on the first day of the event, Thursday 28th May, and this is what happened…

My day at Beamish did not get off to a brilliant start, as on arrival I was faced with an enormous queue to get into the entrance building! Many years ago I had some bad experiences of queuing for ages to do literally anything at Beamish, and so my more recent visits had been during school term time, when the place is generally much quieter. However, a combination of the special event, school half term week and promising weather had sent visitor numbers through the roof on this occasion – but for all that happened once I did get in, it was definitly worth it!

Anyone who is familiar with the tramway operations at Beamish will know that the trams run in a circle, stopping off at four points along the route: these being the Museum Entrance, Pockerley Manor, the 1913 Town, and the final stop is close to the Colliery Village and the tram depot. Visitors can ride around the circuit for as long as they wish, and the tramway is the longest museum line in the UK. Normally trams run in both directions, and meet at the four aforementioned passing points; however, on this day they ran in just one direction, for reasons that soon became apparent. This caused a lot of confusion for many people – despite the fact that all tram stop signs on the ‘wrong side’ were covered over, and boards were on display clearly stating ‘please queue on the other side’, quite a few visitors still queued on the wrong side of the track. One amusing incident occured at the Entrance when a visiting group were queuing in the right place – until a tram appeared, when they went over to the other side for some unknown reason, and then inevitably had to cross back over again, pushing in front of the existing queue!

The core service was being operated by the Museum’s two open-top cars, Blackpool 31 and Newcastle 114, throughout the day. To be honest a third tram was desperately needed to cope with the crowds – however, two of the Museum’s replica buses were used at various times of the day to supplement the service, which did help matters. The first tram I saw was 31, so I boarded it and set off for the Town. Unfortunately this car is looking rather tired and would benefit from a lower deck re-panel and a full repaint – but with a small tram fleet and high visitor numbers, the Museum understandably don’t like to have too many vehicles off the road at any one time. As Sunderland 16 is receiving attention to its truck at present, 31 may have a while to wait for its turn in the works.

The main reason for this visit was waiting to greet me in the Town: Beamish’s first ever visiting tram, Manchester Eades reversible horse car L53! The tram had arrived from Heaton Park earlier in the week, and was operating through the Town on the Thursday and Friday as part of the event (it also briefly operated on the Wednesday for familiarisation purposes). Although the tram could not run very far due to most of the tramway being exposed track, it attracted a huge amount of interest. This was L53‘s first spell of operation away from Manchester; not only that, but it was the first opportunity to run it in an authentic historic street since it was restored, and the first horse tram to run in the North East for more than one hundred years! The horse car was confined to running up and down along one track through the town, hence the electric cars only running in one direction. This also provided the first opportunity to see L53 being reversed authentically with two magnificent horses called Bonnie and Clyde handling the tram beautifully, and turning it at both ends – something which hasn’t yet happened at Heaton Park due to track issues at Middleton Road. What a spectacular sight it was to see the horse tram being turned around the correct way!

Besides the horse tram service, there were plenty of other extra attractions to see due to the ‘Power From The Past’ event. At the nearby railway station, visitors had the chance to become ‘Driver for a Fiver’, and drive a special duel-controlled locomotive. There were also steam rollers and traction engines on display and in action on road-making demonstrations, as well as model displays and much more besides. Guided tours of the Regional Museums Store were also offered; this is a massive building which houses various historical artefacts that have been acquired by Beamish and other local historical groups over the years, ranging from boats to road vehicles. Of particular interest to tram enthusiasts is Blackpool tower wagon 749 which was acquired a few years ago. This vehicle is really no more than an a basic wooden overhead inspection tower mounted on a four-wheel truck, but it is interesting as it is a survivor of the Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad era – in fact, the old company wording can still be seen on the bodywork! In later years 749 was sometimes towed by Engineering car 4, latterly 754, and now restored back to its earlier guise as passenger car 31 at Beamish, so it is highly appropriate that 749 has found a safe home here. Normally the tower wagon can only be glimpsed from a viewing window at the other end of this enormous warehouse, so this day provided a rare opportunity to inspect it more closely.

Returning to the open air, and both electric trams were operating full to capacity for most of the day – this and the improving weather certainly proved that the right trams had been sent out that day! A personal highlight was my first ever ride on Newcastle 114, the operation of which had been specially requested as it dates from the very early years of electric tramways, when horse cars like L53 would still have been in service, and also because it is quite similar to the Manchester electric tram currently housed at Boyle Street, Manchester. It was fantastic to see Manchester L53 mingling with various other horse-drawn vehicles in the period street, as well as the two Edwardian tramcars. Giving L53 right of way on one side of the road even created a few chances to see it running in parallel with 31 and 114 for those who were quick with their cameras.

All too soon, the day was almost over. To be truthful my visit did not do Beamish justice – I spent most of my day in the town area filming, watching and riding on L53 – but I have no regrets about that as it was such a momentous occasion. The Manchester volunteers who accompanied L53 on its holiday were clearly over the moon at being able to operate their tram in such a wonderful setting, and the Beamish staff went out of their way to make them feel extremely welcome and were very helpful indeed. Visitors seemed to adore L53 and the event generated very useful publicity for Heaton Park. Although there were a few grumbles from visitors who begrudged having to pay an extra 50p to ride on the horse tram, the exercise seemed to be highly successful, and proved that trams can be loaned to museums for short periods to the delight of everyone, and that such moves can also be profitable. I for one hope that Beamish and Heaton Park have paved the way for more such events, as the interest in it was far greater than I had expected. Everyone involved in making such an ambitious plan come to being deserves a huge pat on the back for their efforts; likewise, having other historic vehicles operating around the town area greatly enhanced the occasion and was very well received by visitors.

So, here is the moment of truth – ‘Power From The Past’ was a superb event from both a tram point of view and in general, so despite the queues it only seems fair to give it the following score out of 5…


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