As has become the annual tradition, I thought a review of the year was timely, and like 2020’s article, it has the inevitable cloud of COVID-19 cast over it. However, we have had a much brighter year (once the museum was open), and even saw record-breaking visitor numbers in the summer, due to the staycation effect. The familiar ‘old’ operation has been restored to a large part now, but the ongoing (almost weekly) considerations regarding operating levels have become a new feature of life here, and we have also seen the impact of staff sickness, departure (particularly following the cessation of the Government’s Job Support Scheme/Furlough) and delayed or deferred maintenance work. That all said, we managed a couple of successful events, maintained an interesting and reliable level of transport operation and tried a few new ideas out that we will return to as part of our regular operation from 2022 onwards.
So, logically, we will start in January 2021, work our way through to December, then take a look at what 2022 and beyond might hold in store for the transport and engineering operations at Beamish…
We began 2021 with the museum under a blanket of snow, and the site closed under the then in-force national lockdown measures. One notable arrival was the former Murton Colliery Cooperative Society mobile shop. This Karrier chassied vehicle provoked much interest and though it is now in store, there are many people (myself included) would like to see what could be done to accelerate any possible restoration of this fascinating vehicle.
Again, the limited news reported that we were enjoying further snowfall, as well as some outstanding bits of contract work were being completed. I also commenced a detailed examination of Coffee Pot No.1s history – noting that 2021 would be its 150th anniversary and that we hoped to operate it regularly throughout the season (which we eventually were able to do).
In March the blog saw the first news update in a while, reporting on the work underway to ready locomotives for the season ahead and ensure that their boiler certification retained the required continuity. Locomotion No.1 departed (at that point, on loan) to the Head of Steam Museum in Darlington and a follow-up post covered the work carried out on No.18 to plug a failed tube and ensure the locomotive was available for the year if it was required (which it was).
April’s report was more interesting as more of the engineering team returned to work and some outstanding jobs were started, including new locking for the Waggonway points and signal (seen below), repairs to the Iveco cherry picker and completion of steam tests. We also had in mind our programme of operation for the season ahead (as limited opening was anticipated from April 12th. Many other jobs were being undertaken around the museum, including tree-felling – which produced a useful and prototypical load of pit props for the narrow gauge bolster waggons.
The first day of May (Bank Holiday) saw us hold our first transport event in some time – this being a small event, our contribution tote national Twitter Steam Rally. The Colliery Railway was operated and the Friends of Beamish also joined in with a small gathering of members. The event also saw the debut of Peckett 1370 in the Colliery.
On May 17th, the bus service was restored, once again making full use of the two big Daimlers, and supplemented (as the beginning) by the Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle, J2007.
A significant engineering project also restarted, namely the comprehensive overhaul of Gateshead tram 10. The extensive reconstruction of the bogies for this tram recommenced with a survey and ‘get our head around the job’ exercise, which has paid dividends as, by December, very significant progress had bee made on the bogies and the next phase of work on them was due to commence in January. We are hoping to purchase a pair of lifting gantries to aid our work in the depot, but these depend on finance. It is also the aim to return 10 to service in 2023, for the fiftieth anniversary of the museum’s tramway.
The North Eastern Railway luggage composite, 3071 (carrying the number 818) left the museum in May, moving to our friends at Kirby Stephen East on loan. As part of this, it will be overhauled and repainted.
This month saw things beginning to pick up, as restrictions further eased and more staff returned to work from their lengthy period furloughed. The tramcars ventured outside the depot building at various times as part of their commissioning work for later in the year (we knew we were restricted as to when we would reopen the tramway both by staff numbers available, and the tramway infrastructure and access) and the Waggonway reopened. Only for Puffing Billy to experience some mechanical troubles that required more work than we would have liked! Crosville 716 arrived on site and its shakedown running commenced.
We were delighted to receive an Association for Industrial Archaeology grant towards the restoration of the former Darlington Corporation cast-iron bus shelter (which will be installed at the 1950s bus stop), work commencing in the autumn with a view to completion in Spring 2022.
A working fairground was also returned to the list of attractions – this being a licensed operation, provided by Arthur North and which has become a popular and very compatible operation at the museum.
As the summer arrived, the pinch of restrictions started to ease, though in the background a lot of work still carried on to ensure the museum safe, clean and compliant. The absence of the tramway as keenly felt, but the teams (including permanent way) were still operating at a reduced level as part of the COVID-19 precautions in place and to make the most of the furlough scheme.
All that said, there were some highlights as we headed towards the school holidays, including the debut of Crosville 716 in passenger use, the return of the semi-open coach to the Waggonway (this will be replaced in due course, but was made fit for the purpose of increasing capacity and providing an accessible compartment for visitors) and the appearance of what would be the first in several loans of vintage Routemaster buses from the Go North East operating fleet – to help us out in the absence of the trams. Staff returned to Rowley Station, where the restoration of the gardens greatly added to the atmosphere there. A series of Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) funded jobs were also completed, including fencing and re-fencing in the Pit Village area.
August was a very busy month at the museum, with visitor numbers exceeding those for any previous August at Beamish. This was very encouraging and played a significant part in securing the museum’s financial position over the winter. The restrictions were still tangible, but operations were increased in order to restore as much performance across the site as possible. This included road steam (in the shape of a visiting steam roller, that is staying with us for the foreseeable future), the buses, Waggonway and various vintage/veteran vehicles (note the Leyland Cub tipper being used for coal deliveries in the photos below). There was also a substantial report on Gateshead 10’s progress and the filming for the launch of a 4mm scale model chaldron waggon by Accurascale, a model railway manufacturer.
Once the school holidays had finished, and the Town street (High Street to be precise) had been cleared of queueing measures and pub tables, the operation of the tramway resumed – for the first time in 18 months. It was a horseshoe operation, between Foulbridge and the Town (initially terminating just to the east, but soon after being restored to Redman Park). Usually one tram was in public service, whilst a second was in use for driver training – there being an extensive backlog of competence refreshment needed for all operating staff.
The Dig For Victory event probably surpassed even our own expectations! There were a large number of (generally US Army) vehicles on display and performing around the museum – the parades were particularly impressive and the column would take some time to pass a fixed point such were the number of vehicles available to participate.
We hosted a photo charter in September, which provided an opportunity to operate R025 for an extended period of time – the first such run since its restoration was completed.
A number of days were spent tidying up around the railways – in particular the Colliery. Here No.18 and team, utilising their outdoor messroom, are engaged on scrap metal collection (in particular PW materials discarded but not removed by the track & plant team).
Later in the month we held our first transport event – our Autumn Steam Gala. This was aimed at being a low-key, low-cost (and therefore low-financial risk) event, but actually turned out to be well-attended by exhibitors and visitors alike – no doubt the glorious weather helped in this regard. It was a very relaxing event (as it was smaller than the Great North Steam Fairs of the past) and it has given us the idea to reduce the scale of our events in the future – to ensure they are manageable and everyone can get a ‘go’ on the circuit. We will also split them into two – with the April event being a two-day steam fair (with some other vehicles) whilst September will be a two day event with a ‘anything goes’ for transport theme (up to the 1950s in period).
More images of the Autumn Steam Gala can be found here:
The month ended with a visit from the Omnibus Society, and a line-up of buses outside the depot.
We hosted another photo charter in October, with some glorious cold weather creating some wonderful images around the Colliery. A bus running day was also held (again, this proved popular enough to be considered as a part of the 2022 events calendar, if a weekend can be found for it) and in the workshops, the column lifts were commissioned, progress made on dismantling the Dodge bus ready for a body lift and the construction of the replica cab for the Model T Ton Truck commenced. This is based on a local vehicle and will be used by the steam maintenance/engineering team once completed.
A lot of engineering work was ongoing in November, whilst the wider team were engaged in preparations for Christmas. The bus fleet was readied for its role during the busy Christmas season (which started in late November), and another Go North East Routemaster was added to the fleet to increase the seating capacity. In the workshops, progress on the Dundee Gas Works loco was such that the chassis was almost ready for releasing from its wheels
We close the year as we began it – locomotive boiler inspections and working on winter maintenance in readiness for the 2022 season (discussed further down). The Dundee Gas Works loco boiler was inspected and a plan made for 2022, including lifting the frames from the wheelsets, whilst a concerted effort was made on Gateshead 10 to hit some milestones with the brake gear assembly rebuild. NEXUS carried out their comprehensive inspection of our tramway Overhead Line Equipment – the report from which is still awaited at the time of writing. The buses and trams ran in support of the Christmas festival whilst the Waggonway, closed at the end of the summer season at the end of October, then re-started for weekends and Christmas week to add to the operational activity on site. So ended another strange year, with much of what was unfamiliar in 2020 becoming quite normal in 2021. It has perhaps felt an frustrating year – but looking back through the blog posts (around 51 in 2021), it is heartening to see how much was achieved, especially under such constrained circumstances.
2021 Tramcar Mileages
As expected, these are somewhat reduced in 2021, but nevertheless they reflect the usefulness of Sheffield 264 at Beamish, with its open balconies but otherwise enclosed passenger accommodation.
Sunderland 16 – 850
Blackpool 31 – 600
Newcastle 114 – 75
South Shields 196 – 450
Sheffield 264 – 1950
A cautious look ahead to 2022 and beyond…
Given the turbulent recent past, it seems prudent to not just look at 2022 as part of our immediate future, but a few years beyond that too – as we really cannot be sure what disruption may yet come our way, or how many further variants of the Coronavirus we may yet experience.
I mentioned earlier the pleasure and, perhaps, surprise, at looking back through 2021 and seeing how much was accomplished. A lot of this used up our operating ‘credit’ however – we were lucky we had buses in good shape, or trams ready for inspection and service. We have a reasonable steam fleet in good condition and we have some interesting projects underway. However, we have also had two years without the investment of resource and time into our rolling stock and infrastructure, or site-wide maintenance. This presents a delayed impact and in many ways, 2022/23 will be more challenging as the operation returns to the ‘old normal’ (horrible phrase!) and the expectations of it are that it should be familiar and every bit as vibrant as 2018/19. It is therefore important to manage expectations.
What we won’t have are all the same resources – the Waggonway is an example of this, with the need for substantial investment in maintenance and renewal – Steam Elephant’s overhaul being on hold whilst Puffing Billy will have life-extension work to extend its working life in this period. All wheelsets on the train are due tyre-turning and the bodies of each vehicle also require some work. We will lose Oporto 196 this winter, with its withdrawal pending overhaul. Gateshead 10 suffered the lost years of the 2020/21 closure, and also the frustrating impact of a year of engineering work carried out on the steam gallopers centre engine, only for this not to be put into operation.
No.18 will be withdrawn this week, its boiler ticket expiring. We would like to turn it around quickly – but what work gets shelved in order to enable this to happen? Puffing Billy will be retubed next winter, as we’ve not touched Steam Elephant’s mechanical overhaul (which on the 2019/20 plan would have been completed by now) and the infrastructure upon which everything runs requires substantial work to either keep it where it is, or reopen it (in the case of Rowley). The buses have accrued a big mileage, and are showing it – not least the two Daimlers. Both need attention, in our workshop and probably from a third party too. We have a small team and so prioritising their workflow is critical, and this currently forms the basis of negotiation for the budgets and capital resource to enable us to plan ahead this year and next.
More widely, we are seeing labour shortages in the cultural and hospitality sectors and have already struggled to fill rotas (not helped by the current variant of the virus) – this is a very real challenge and we are competing against many other venues or hostelries for staff. Working at Beamish is wonderful – but in these times people are acutely aware of a rising cost of living and the need to find the most remunerative work for them and their families.
The museum’s Senior Leadership Team are meeting and developing our forward plan – but no longer can we claim public sympathy or reduce our breadth of operation due to the pandemic – aspirations being somewhat tested against the reality of the labour market and also the horrendous price rises – some suppliers are only holding their quotes for materials for a matter of days, such is the fluctuation (generally escalation) of material prices. Then there is the cost of gas, the increasingly tenuous (in the view of society) use of carbon fuels and the ageing nature of our site, infrastructure and equipment. All of these certainly make the next, say, five-year period a challenging one in this sector and for this museum.
However, there is plenty to look forward to, including the numerous Remaking Beamish openings that will take place in the next couple of years. Looking ahead, here are some of the (transport) things we are working on/towards and which should be realised by 2025:
- Completion of the extensive and protracted restoration of the Duke of Sutherland’s locomotive ‘Dunrobin’.
- Completion of ex Dundee Gas Works Kerr Stuart, No.721
- The construction and assembly of the (fairly complex) railway running gear for the narrow gauge First World War Crewe Tractor
- The Dodge bus restoration/conservation, culminating in its return to passenger service once again
- The expansion of the vintage and veteran road vehicle fleet – including completion of the Model T Ton Truck and Austin 10
- Restoration of passenger services at Rowley Station
- Expansion of the workshop facilities, programme and (it is hoped) the team (in order to improve our self-reliance)
- A range of events with a growing variety of exhibits at each
- The tramway’s fiftieth anniversary in 2023 – and I hope to have a new edition of the tramway book (expanded to include the bus operation too)
It will be interesting to look back on 2022 from 2023’s point of view – so as ever, watch this space, visit the museum, purchase from our shop and please subscribe to the blog to follow the story forward.
With best wishes and a happy new year from all of us at Beamish…