Masonry ‘of such indifferent quality’, Colonel Yolland speaking, of course, on the occasion of his inspecting ‘T’owd Ratty’ in June 1876. It can’t have been of such indifferent quality, though, as much of that masonry still plays its part in supporting the track bed today – as you rattle around Rock Point, climb Dalegarth-wards from Fisherground towards Spout House, or crest Beckfoot Bank, take a moment to consider the good colonel’s opinion! It is an arresting thought, though, and one which is typical of our railway where the present is always firmly built – in this case quite literally – on the past!
And, of course, this is just one of those wonderful background ‘Ratty’ stories which makes our railway so fascinating, like a resurrection and change of gauge for the purposes of ‘playing trains’ by gentlemen-amateurs in the midst of a bloody World War, or the development of a dual-gauge industrial railway in the twenties and thirties, and the repulse of the scrap merchants in 1960. All this without even touching on locomotives, ‘characters’ and the social context of the railway within the valley.
Since 1978 the repository of all these stories – and the artefacts to bring them back to life – has been the Railway’s museum on the ‘up’ platform of the main line station at Ravenglass. Admirable though this facility remains, it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out that the museum is now well into its fourth decade and is quite frankly beginning to show its age. It’s time for a change – or rather an improvement, as the two mustn’t be confused as is often the case in this modern day and age – and, as Society members will be aware, plans are afoot to make this happen in the foreseeable future.
Diligent readers of this magazine will recall that, a few issues back, a feature outlined projects which a ‘cash-rich’ Society might support in order to enhance the Railway for visitors, volunteers and staff members alike. One of these projects was quoted as ‘acting as a catalyst towards a museum extension and new displays’ and, although things have moved but steadily, the prospect of a revived museum is now coming to fruition.
A Museum Management Committee made up of representatives from the Railway Company staff, the Preservation Society and the Eskdale Cumbria Trust meets regularly to oversee museum development at Ravenglass. At present the Management Committee is keen to tie up the loose ends of land ownership, between the ‘big railway’ and the Company, concerning the existing museum building, and to seek financial backing for the ‘new’ museum. A bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund is well-progressed and local avenues of funding are being explored. A first draft of the proposed ‘look’ of the redeveloped museum has been commissioned from a local architect. These proposals and a good deal of background thinking behind the museum development appeared in Jim Walker’s article in issue 210 last September.
So how then can the Preservation Society assist the redeveloped museum, both to get off the ground and then to remain ‘sustainable’?
Let us, for the sake of this editorial, assume that you do agree that the Preservation Society should be involved in the redevelopment of the museum – and it is, at last, right up our fairly somnolent Trust’s street and an excellent chance for it to exercise its financial muscle – then there are perhaps two avenues in which significant support could be given.
The first is almost entirely financial and would involve pledging a significant sum of money in ‘adopting’ one part of the fitting out of the new museum. Taking on the display and interpretation in the new museum would be a worthy project for the Society and again sits exactly within the Trust’s remit. To see that the appropriate objects are displayed attractively and to make sure that the story of the Ratty is told in a manner which will appeal to all visitors seems a very deserving cause. The role of the Preservation Society would, of course, be written large as the story comes up to date; throughout, steps would be taken to avoid ‘dumbing down’, a hole into which many of our larger transport museums seem eager to jump at the present time!
The ‘interpretation’ in the museum would no doubt be supported by ‘interactives’ – working exhibits to explain the subject matter further and to appeal to children of all ages. ‘Interactives’ are marvellous things – but they have to work and they need looking after, and so a second area of input to the museum could come after it reopens with Society members acting as, well the old term is ‘attendants’ and the modern one ‘explainers’, but people with an interest in people and a delight in telling the story of the railway. If an archive becomes part of the redeveloped museum then this role probably assumes more importance than ever and provides an area for volunteering which has not been explored before.
The present museum has proved its worth. Its successor will build on that and provide yet another excellent reason to visit Ravenglass for families, railway enthusiasts, coach parties and school groups. We’ve always been much more than a train ride, we’ve a fantastic story to tell – a redeveloped museum is well worthy of the Society’s support!