Above: Great Western Railway locomotive ‘Wightwick Hall’ giving train rides in the Up Yard. Photo: Murray Tremellen
The Buckinghamshire Railway Centre (BRC) is a museum I have known and loved since my childhood. It has changed and developed considerably since my first visits roughly twenty-five years ago, but from 2020 the BRC – like museums around the world – had to deal with a situation unprecedented in living memory, the coronavirus pandemic. How would it cope with social distancing restrictions? On the August bank holiday weekend, I decided to pay a visit and find out.
The BRC is based at the former Quainton Road station, about eight miles north-west of Aylesbury. Despite its relatively isolated rural location, this was once an important junction where three railway routes converged. However, the decline in rail traffic during the 20th century saw all these routes lose their passenger services and the station closed in 1966. Three years later, railway enthusiasts took over the site and began transforming it into a working museum. Despite the closure of the station, one of the railway lines through it nonetheless remains open for freight traffic. This effectively cuts the site into two halves, the ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ Yards, which are connected by a pair of footbridges over the surviving railway line.
The BRC combines conventional museum exhibits and displays of static rail vehicles with two short demonstration lines – one on each side of the site – where working locomotives and rolling stock are operated on selected ‘steaming’ days. On these days, it is usually possible for passengers to take a short train ride on the Up Yard line, but it’s worth checking the museum’s website before a visit to ensure that the train will be running. In normal times, visitors would also be able to enjoy a ride-on miniature railway and a large outdoor model railway, but these are currently closed due to the pandemic.
Like many museums and heritage sites, the BRC introduced a system of pre-booked time slots for entry during 2020. Having booked my slot through the website, I was emailed my tickets along with an information leaflet which gave a clear, detailed explanation of the new one-way system around the site. This included advanced warnings of which attractions would not be open, and highlighted the locations of catering and toilet facilities along the route. It was very reassuring to know exactly what to expect when I arrived.
Entry to the site is through the visitor centre, located in the former Rewley Road station building. This was relocated from Oxford in 1998, and is a building of considerable architectural significance, having been built from pre-fabricated iron components almost identical to those used in London’s Crystal Palace. It makes an excellent showcase for some of the star exhibits, including a former Royal Train dining car and a saloon coach used by Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower during the Second World War. It also houses the centre’s café and, in light of the one-way system, the leaflet sensibly recommended buying takeaway refreshments here before starting a journey around the site.
After leaving the visitor centre, the one-way route took me past the original Quainton Road station building and over the first footbridge into the Down Yard. I then passed the second-hand bookshop, which was open, although temporarily limited to three customers at a time. After this, I reached the main museum building, where the bulk of the BRC’s collection is displayed. The one-way system has been arranged as a zig-zag route through the rows of rolling stock, ensuring that visitors still have a chance to see all the large exhibits, although a gallery of smaller exhibits has had to be closed, and the interactive displays are also out of use. Nevertheless, there is still a lot to see in this building, with some of the large exhibits being used as focal points for small displays explaining various aspects of railway traffic and operations. For example, one particularly unusual exhibit is a 1950s British Railways horsebox, which is displayed with its doors open so that visitors can see the stalls and the groom’s compartment inside.
After leaving the museum building, a footpath leads visitors alongside the Down Yard tracks to the mid-point of the site. This long walk may be taxing for visitors with limited mobility, but on steaming days it offers good views of the locomotives at work on the station’s demonstration lines. On the day of my visit, a small steam locomotive was shunting freight wagons, and this could be observed at close quarters from the footpath.
The footpath leads visitors over the second footbridge crossing the mainline railway and back into the Up Yard. Normally, visitors would be able to visit the miniature railway on the right but, as mentioned, the pandemic has forced the closure of this attraction. However, the locomotive shed to the left of the bridge was still open, with a one-way system in place. This is where the operational locomotives are displayed when not in use.
The next stop on the tour is the demonstration line platform where, if they wish, visitors can embark for a short train ride. There was a carefully-managed queueing system to ensure social distancing as passengers entered and exited the coaches. By the time I got there it was quite late in the day and I did not have to queue very long, but I can imagine there might be a longer wait at busier times. Household groups were kept separate on the train, meaning that I was able to enjoy a whole compartment to myself, an unaccustomed luxury on what would normally be one of the busiest days of the year.
Finally, the one-way system led me back into the visitor centre, where there was another opportunity to buy refreshments, before exiting through the gift shop.
Overall, the BRC has done a good job of managing these difficult circumstances. Some visitors may be disappointed at the closure of certain attractions, but this was understandable and was clearly mentioned in the pre-visit literature. The one-way system also poses challenges for visitors with mobility problems due to the lack of step-free access in certain areas, but again, the pre-visit literature forewarns visitors of this and advises them to phone the centre to discuss their requirements.
My only major criticism was that the predictable lunchtime ‘rush’ at the café was not well managed, and it was difficult for queueing visitors to maintain social distancing. This could have been alleviated by providing an alternative ‘grab-and-go’ food outlet, even if that had just been a table outdoors selling cold drinks and pre-packaged snacks. This would have relieved the pressure on the main café and provided faster service for those not wanting hot food.
Aside from this, however, the centre offered an enjoyable and relaxing day out, which was particularly welcome in these troubled times. Normally, it would be buzzing on a bank holiday weekend, but the current limitations on visitor numbers meant that the atmosphere this year was a lot more subdued. Whilst I worry about the financial impact this will have on the centre, from the visitor’s point of view the limited capacity was no bad thing. In days gone by, Quainton Road was an isolated country station and, despite all the modern alterations, it has not completely lost that sleepy, tranquil rural atmosphere. In a year when we have all spent a great deal of time at home, the simple combination of fresh air, open space, blue skies and steam trains was a wonderful tonic.
Location: Quainton Road Station, Station Rd, Quainton, Aylesbury HP22 4BY. Signposted from the A41 with free on-site parking, or accessible by Aylesbury or Aylesbury Vale Parkway railway stations and the number 16 bus.
Admission: Free entry for under 5s, but otherwise ticket pricing varies by ‘static’ (£6 per adult), ‘steaming’ (£12 per adult), and other special event dates. Children, family, senior and season tickets all available. Train rides at additional charge.
Opening hours: 10:30am – 4:30pm weekdays and 5pm weekends
Covid-specific information: at time of writing (February 2021) the museum is temporarily closed until further notice. More information about this and FAQs are available here.
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Murray Tremellen is an architectural historian whose interests span the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. He is currently a PhD candidate with the University of York; his research aims to provide the first detailed study of the original Speaker’s House within the Palace of Westminster, 1794-1834.
Before returning to full time study, Murray worked for the National Trust from 2013-19, latterly as Assistant House Steward at Uppark House & Garden. As a member of house staff, Murray took on a diverse range of responsibilities including preventive conservation and volunteer management. His ultimate aspiration is to be become a curator.