Tom Chesshyre on the glory of obscure railway museums
This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
In a dusty yard surrounded by palm trees in a small city by the Nile in north-eastern Sudan, a rusty old locomotive with peeling grey paint stands in a corner, looking forlorn and forgotten. A faded sign informs that this loco was used by General Kitchener to transport troops as part of the campaign to take back Khartoum in 1897-8.
Nearby is a rusty old Sudan Railways Fire Brigade extinguisher from 1930, a rusty old engineers’ trolley from 1945, a rusty old “BEWARE OF TRAINS” sign from 1935, a rusty old steam shunting locomotive from 1951 and the rusty old gate from Khartoum Station from 1902; “Made in England” says another sign.
As far as railways museums go, the Sudan Railways Museum is a bit of a collector’s item, at the confluence of the Nile and Atbara rivers in Atbara. This was where Kitchener’s Anglo-Egyptian forces defeated the Mahdists in April 1898 on the way to victory at the bloody Battle of Omdurman in September and the retaking of Khartoum after the death of General Charles Gordon at the hands of the Mahdists in 1885.
You can be in the middle of absolutely nowhere and a railway museum can pop up
Railways had been key to transporting Kitchener’s troops southwards, and after victory the railway was extended to Khartoum — all of which is explained in the little museum, which turns out to be an Aladdin’s cave of railway stuff. Station clocks, cutlery and crockery from dining carriages, drivers’ pocket watches, stationmaster whistles — all sorts of bits and bobs kept in glass cabinets in a converted Anglican church.
Evocative black and white pictures show the early days of the railway: narrow gauge tracks being laid, bridges under construction, Kitchener on horseback issuing orders and, later, a 1916 visit by the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) wearing a pith helmet.
Our impromptu stop at the museum was on a drive to the ruins of Napata in Karima, just before crossing the Bayuda desert, where a checkpoint guard in this dry Muslim country had jokingly asked: “Where is your whisky? If you have any, we’ll drink it!”
It just goes to show, you can be in the middle of absolutely nowhere and a railway museum can pop up.
In Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, serendipity delivered another gem. The morning of checking out for a noon train to Innsbruck, my charming guesthouse host Katarina — who had gathered I had an interest in railways — suggested I go to the Railway Museum of Slovenia, a short walk north of the station.
The tourist office map of Ljubljana had cut off this section altogether; I had known nothing about it. Half an hour later, Mr Bogic, the museum’s director, who happened to be free, was personally showing me around a former boiler room full of restored locomotives, telling me all about the first line between Vienna and Trieste in 1857 and bemoaning the lack of interest among youngsters in old steam locos (a common lament among heritage train people the world over).
Then, before I knew quite what was going on, Mr Bogic had passed me on to Mr Dusan (who was covered in coal dust), and Mr Dusan was telling me to sit on a tiny carriage being pulled by a tiny steam loco on a narrow gauge track around the old boiler room.
Off we went with a whistle and a hiss of steam for our 700-metre journey. How unexpected! Thank you Mr Bogic, Mr Dusan, and Katarina, too.
Train museums seem to be lurking just about everywhere. Arriving by train in Aguilas in the province of Murcia in southern Spain two summers ago, I went straight to my hotel from the sleepy station. In my room a tourist leaflet informed that the port was home to a ruta del ferrocarril (railway line), connected to a historic mining railway, and that the station housed a railway museum in its basement — which I had totally missed.
This one was tiny compared to Atbara and Ljubljana, just a room in a windowless vault with a model railway, some old uniforms, lanterns, machine parts and pictures.
The entrance was manned by three gossiping elderly men wearing straw hats, one of whom accompanies you in, sells you a one-euro ticket and asks if you would like to buy an Aguilas train museum labelled bottle of wine (which in retrospect I wish I had). He then turns on the model railway, watches you walk round and turns off the model railway when you leave a few minutes later.
Another little railway museum surprise. If you look about, there’s usually one somewhere round the corner on your travels. The common denominator in Sudan, Slovenia and Spain? I was the only tourist.
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