Andrew Waddington reports on what the North of England Open Air Museum at Beamish has to offer – both from trams and the museum itself…
Following a gap of many years, I finally paid a well overdue return visit to the North of England Open Air Museum on 4th May 2005. Of course, the museum is home to a very fine working tramway, which is reportedly the longest museum line in the UK, offering a really enjoyable ride. The tramway is a circular route consisting of mostly single track, and for most of the day two trams were in service – one running in each direction. As well as being a good ride for enthusiasts, the Beamish tramway serves a genuine purpose: to transport visitors around the massive museum site. There are four stops along the route, each with a passing loop: the museum entrance, Home Farm (which is also close to the colliery village and the tram depot), the 1913 Town, and finally Pockerley. The latter site is one of the newer developments, and boasts a traditional manor house and an 1825 style steam railway.
There are currently six trams at Beamish, three of which were operating during my visit. For most of the day two cars were in use, these being Gateshead 10 and Blackpool ‘Marton Box’ 31. Car 31 will no doubt be familiar to many readers thanks to its memorable visit to Blackpool for the 1998 special events, and it is good to see it again in good condition – in fact, it has only recently returned to service following workshop attention. Gateshead 10 is a sister of car 5 at Crich, but sadly is looking rather shabby, with its platform doors looking in desperate need of a re-varnish. This highlights the fact that Beamish have a high demand for tramcars, but very few vehicles to spread the annual mileage between: this preserved tramway is run very much like a traditional transport system, in that the trams are very much needed to get visitors from A to B, as the museum site is so big. During the summer season trams run full to capacity with large queues at the tram stops, so taking trams off the road because they aren’t quite in pristine condition is not an option.
Late in the afternoon a third tram, Beamish 196, entered service. This car in fact originates from Oporto and is similar in appearance to Oporto 273 at Crich Tramway Village, but has been painted in Gateshead colours of maroon and cream and branded with the fictitious ‘Beamish Tramways’ name. In fact, Beamish acquired another Portuguese car at the same time as 196 – which is now privately owned and mounted on rubber tyres. Its trucks were donated to Newcastle 114, and although I have still not seen this car in action, it was parked outside the tram depot basking in the sunshine. 114 is an open top short-canopied car dating from 1901, and it was restored in the 1990s.
The most recent restoration project is Sunderland 16, a very attractive 1900 built vehicle which has been restored to a later, fully enclosed condition. Sadly it has been out of service since the end of last year, and a very friendly tram driver informed me that it had a problem with its wheel bearing. With work on Blackpool 31 now complete, 16 will hopefully be repaired and put back into service soon. The final tram in the Beamish collection is Sheffield 264, which has not run for some time. A clear victim of the need to have as many trams as possible available for service, this car has been heavily used and is now rather worn out and awaiting a full overhaul. Unfortunately, it is housed in a small lean-to building next to the main depot, and is rather hard to see.
Besides the trams, there is an awful lot else to see at Beamish, and whatever you’re interested in I’m sure that you will find something that will fascinate you. The 1913 Town incorporates some magnificently restored buildings, including a sweet shop, garage, pub and a Barclay’s Bank. The current project is the reconstruction of a Masonic temple, which is progressing very well. Transport enthusiasts will want to visit the Pockerley Waggonway, operated by two replica steam engines, ‘Locomotion’ and ‘Steam Elephant’ which give rides to the public. On the day of my visit a replica open top bus was also in service between the Town and Colliery.
Beamish is a fantastic museum – there’s an awful lot to take in, and if you do visit then you’ll probably go away wishing you’d had more time. What really brings the place to life is the people who work there – both paid staff and volunteers work together to really make the past come alive in front of you, and their enthusiasm and friendliness cannot be faulted. A visit to Beamish makes for a great day out, and I would definitely recommend a visit to anyone who has any kind of interest in our heritage. Even aspects of the museum which you may think are not of interest have a habit of drawing you in, so rest assured, it is a lot more than just a place to see and ride on some nice restored trams.