Sunday, 9 June 2013

Seeing trains was like meeting my characters

Shildon in County Durham may be the the only place I've been to where there seem to be more car parking spaces in the town than people. I was there to visit Shildon Locomotion, the North East outpost of the National Railway Museum, where I'll be doing some talks and readings on Sunday 11 August. I specifically wanted to go this weekend because the museum is literally rolling out some working replicas of the the engines that competed in the Rainhill trials, along with one or two important originals - locomotives featured in my novel Mr Stephenson's Regret.

My book on the Stephensons aside, I am no railway buff. Nevertheless I almost cried when I stepped into the railway yard alongside the museum to find an exact life-size replica of The Rocket being stoked up and ready to go. The engine (made for the 150th anniversary of the Liverpool-Manchester Railway opening) looked exactly as it does on the front cover of my book, and I felt as if I was meeting one of the central characters of my novel in the flesh.

Replica of The Rocket

The Rocket moved off down the track, giving me my first full view of Locomotion No.1 parked behind it, and not the replica this time but the original engine, standing in almost the same spot from which it started its historic journey on the opening day of the Stockton and Darlington line.

The original Locomotion No. 1

When I am doing talks I almost always read from the pages that cover the Stockton-Darlington opening. I looked upon the fine black engine today, in company with less than a dozen other visitors to the museum, and thought of the 40,000 and more who turned up on 27 September 1825 to witness the iron lady's maiden trip. Appropriately enough, as I stood watching and thinking, one of the modern trains of the Tees Valley Line came tearing by in the background, carrying passengers on the same historic route. A couple of minutes later a replica of The Planet (the first Stephenson engine to cover the Liverpool-Manchester route in less than an hour) brought a carriage-load of visitors into the museum yard the exciting way, by rail under steam power.

Replica of The Planet

More excitement for me inside the museum main building when I came across Betty Stephenson's recipe book on display, written in her own hand. Betty is possibly my favourite character in the novel and she features prominently in a talk I often do for Women's Institutes on the Stephenson women. Robert loved his stepmother, whom he called his mama. She did so much to introduce him to the finer things in life - music, poetry - which were missing from the more prosaic upbringing Robert had from his father before Betty came into the family.

Also inside the museum (a respectable little offspring of the York parent) among impressive trains of varied vintage, my wife and I discovered another replica of the Rainhill Trials, Timothy Hackworth's Sans Pareil.

Replica of Sans Pareil

Fine as it was in its Rainhill colours, this replica seemed to pale in comparison to the stark original which we found on display in a converted workshop next to Timothy Hackworth's cottage on the other side of town. The cottage is open to the public but it is the engine that inspires. It was a failure at Rainhill, partly because it was over the weight limit (it certainly looks much heavier than The Rocket) and partly because of a cracked cylinder (which Hackworth unfairly blamed on the Stephensons as it was made in their Forth Street workshop), but it was later improved and went into operation for a short while on the Liverpool-Manchester line.

The original Sans Pareil

I felt a little guilty as I wandered around the Hackworth end of the Shildon experience because I don't treat him particularly well as a character in my novel. Hackworth (who was born, like George Stephenson, in Wylam) became locomotive superintendent of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. In one section of the novel Robert Stephenson blames him for his failure to overcome some of the early teething problems there. A more unpleasant argument occurs at Rainhill when Hackworth accuses the Stephensons of sabotage over the cracked cylinder. The historical fact is that Hackworth had twenty cylinders cast at Forth Street and personally chose the two best to use for his engine at Rainhill, so he only had himself to blame. I should acknowledge though (as I don't in my novel simply because it is not relevant to the narrative) that Timothy Hackworth played a significant part in ensuring that Locomotion No. 1 was in fit shape to pull the wagons on that dramatic opening day. There. I hope I can now perform my talks and readings at Shildon in good conscience.

Hope to see some of you there on Sunday 11 August. The whole Shildon Locomotion experience is free and well worth a visit.


  1. Lovely blog post, David. Sounds like a great day out! And how exciting to meet your book's 'characters'!

  2. Thanks, Emma. I was surprised by emotion. I didn't expect the visit to affect me the way it did.

  3. Sounds remarkable! I read and enjoyed your book a couple of years ago. It often surprises me how being in a place, and seeing the original objects resonates. I've seen some oldies at Middleton in Leeds, and at York Railway Museum. I'm no more than a casual observer and admirer of engineering, but we did visit Gantham a couple of weeks ago to see the Mallard, almost in the place she (it?) broke the speed record for steam (126 mph).
    Lovely post - too late and too far for me to have visited Shilton,alas.

  4. Lovely comment, too. Thanks, aligot.