Railway Museum Rises from the Ashes
The horrific scene that greeted enthusiasts 10 years ago!
The small museum of the Bishops Castle Railway, which claimed to be Shropshire's first devoted purely to the railways, had been largely destroyed by fire in the early hours of November 16, 2000, to the heartbreak of the volunteers and enthusiasts who had worked to create it. But the then curator, Ken Lucas, pledged that the museum, in a 15th century, half-timbered building in School Lane, off the town's High Street, would be rebuilt within two years.
"We’re disappointed but not defeated," he declared. "The museum will rise like a phoenix and be reopened. We have managed to save all of the really valuable things and so we will not give up. We’ll start again from scratch and rebuild it to what it was before the fire. Although a large library of over 200 transport books was burned and some water got into rare railway documents, two large display cases downstairs escaped damage. Rescued items included metal signs, old railway lamps, and tools. The cause of the fire was suspected to be an electrical fault."
Mr Lucas proved as good as his word, as the museum reopened in 2002, with huge crowds visiting over the Easter weekend, after an enormous effort in salvaging the building and its artefacts. The damage had run into tens of thousands of pounds.
Bishop's Castle Railway Station – the railway was a financial disaster area.
It had been an eventful start to the museum which had opened on that site on August 9, 1999, featuring items from the golden age of steam and remembering the town's railway, which was a financial disaster area but was full of character.
The roots of the museum had in fact gone back significantly earlier. The original museum, in old stables next to the former Bull Inn in Bull Street, was opened to the public on July 18, 1992, having been set up by the Bishop's Castle Railway Society, which had been formed less than three years previously.
Its main focus was the Bishop's Castle to Craven Arms main line which was open from mid-Victorian times to 1935, and whose working life was like something from a Will Hay comedy script.
The late Russell Mulford, a renowned railways and steam expert, gave this description: "Of all the minor railways which grew up in Britain during the halcyon days of train mania, the Bishop’s Castle Railway must rank as the outstanding example of struggles over adversity – providing the railway historian with a wealth of material.
"Virtually in receivership from the outset, the Bishop’s Castle ran from Stretford Bridge Junction, north of Craven Arms, to Lydham Heath, with a spur to Bishop’s Castle itself. The aim initially was to take the line through to the Cambrian system at Montgomery, but this never materialised. Bishop’s Castle Railway struggled from its opening in 1865 through to closure in 1935, a victim of its own dilapidation, and the increasing competition from road transport." he said
A new home for the museum is nearing completion through restoring this railway weighbridge building. Taking a close look last December were, from left, Roger Dalton, Mike Boyd, Lin Dalton and David O'Neill.
"It never made any money. It overcame the problems of receivership, the attention of bailiffs, the seizure of land, and increasing lack of maintenance of stock and track. That it kept operating at all for the best part of 70 years is a tribute in itself to its staff and the affection in which the line was held – and still is – by the people of this corner of South Shropshire."
As for the museum, it's all been happening in recent years. It closed on October 7, 2017, because the lease was up and the society could not afford a new commercial lease, and putting all its funds into buying the building looked too big a risk.
Lin Dalton of the society said: "What happened then is the society negotiated with the House on Crutches in Bishop's Castle and they provided us with a small area upstairs for all the original Bishop's Castle Railway artefacts. Other artefacts have gone into storage. Just as the museum has risen like a phoenix once, it is now soon to do so again. We looked around for new premises and realised that in one corner of the Ransford timber mills in Bishop's Castle was the last original railway building of Bishop's Castle Railway, the weighbridge building. They offered us a lease on it and a group of volunteers have restored that building."
The artefacts will move in there, the weighing mechanism has been restored as a feature, and there will also be a multi-purpose room for small meetings."
Lin said the project was 90% complete and, although the coronavirus situation obviously means there is some uncertainty, she is hopeful the resurgent museum will be able to open around June or July 2021.