The Barrow Hill Roundhouse and the romance of steam

What is it about steam locomotives that so captures the imaginations of young and old alike, both here in the UK and across the globe? Like Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Velociraptor they seem like monsters from another age, ill-suited to the modern world, and yet they hold their legions of fans enthralled.

Everyone loves a steam train, and Mrs P and I are no exception. We’ve experienced the romance of steam on several heritage railways (that’s railroads to you guys in North America!), but last year we decided to explore steam locomotives from a different angle when we took a trip to Barrow Hill Roundhouse in the north of our home county of Derbyshire.

The turntable sits at the heart of the roundhouse, here in the process of turning a small diesel shunter

Railway roundhouses were constructed to house and service steam locomotives. At the heart of most roundhouses was a turntable, where locomotives and other rolling stock could be turned around for the return journey. Radiating out from this central turntable – and thereby dictating the circular shape of roundhouses – were spokes of track where the locomotives could be serviced and stored.

Once roundhouses, and the turntables associated with them, were familiar sights up and down the UK’s rail network. But when, in the middle of the last century, steam locomotives were replaced with diesel and electric alternatives that could run equally well in either direction without the need to be physically turned around, turntables became surplus to requirements and most roundhouses were razed to the ground.

Barrow Hill Roundhouse was completed in 1870 and finally ceased operation in 1991. It quickly fell victim to vandalism and neglect, at which point a group of amateur train enthusiasts, the Barrow Hill Engine Shed Society, stepped in with a proposal to save it from demolition. Their vision won the backing of influential backers and charitable funders, and today Barrow Hill is said to be the last surviving railway roundhouse in the United Kingdom with an operational turntable. You can see the turntable in action, and soak up some of the atmosphere at the Barrow Hill Roundhouse, by clicking on the link below to my short YouTube video.

Visitors can see the turntable in action every day while also getting up close and personal with numerous steam and diesel locomotives, as well as a variety of other memorabilia in Barrow Hill’s impressive railway museum. The locomotives have been polished until they gleam, and standing next to them it’s easy to appreciate what magnificent, monstrous beasts they were.

Their time has passed and will never return – climate change and the need to control carbon emissions makes this a certainty – but they and their predecessors were at the heart of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Steam locomotives boosted the economy by enabling easy cross-country transportation of goods and materials, and changed society beyond recognition when they made swift, affordable long distance travel available to the masses. The display at Barrow Hill offers a pleasurable opportunity to wallow in nostalgia for few hours, and is recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in the romance of steam.

23 comments

  1. Laurie Graves · March 23

    What an informative post! Never about how steam engines needed to be turned. I enjoyed watching the short video. And while the age of steam engines might be over, I sure hope their successors that use electricity make a big comeback.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · March 24

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed the post and video. Although the need for a turntable is obvious when you think through the practicalities of operating a steam locomotive, it’s a requirement that’s easily overlooked (something I managed to achieve for over half a century πŸ™‚).

      Where the buildings survive roundhouses can be re-purposed in various ways: another (the world’s first!), just a few miles from where we live, now houses part of Derby College, and several years ago we visited one in the heart of Toronto that has been been converted into a fine brewery (Steam Whistle Brewing).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Laurie Graves · March 24

        Good that some of the roundhouses have been re-purposed. Too often buildings that still have some use are torn down.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah, Another Blogger · March 23

    Greetings. Were/are model train sets popular in Britain? They were in the States, with kids and adults alike. Not sure if that remains true.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · March 24

      They certainly were. Growing up in the 60s I, and many of my friends, had a train set. Mine boasted two steam locomotives, one black and one green, and a diesel loco too. I remember them like it was yesterday.

      I suspect train sets are less popular with youngsters these days due to the large number of competing (mostly digital) attractions, but they still have a following. And some adults have “big boys’ train sets”, reliving the pleasures of their childhood! Indeed for several years my father-in-law had a big garden train set, complete with tracks threading their way between bushes and flower beds. What fun we had when he held open days to raise money for his local church πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Elizabeth · March 23

    We take an annual trip to Barrow Hill Roundhouse – for the annual beer festival – highly recommended.
    Beer and trains 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Paddy Tobin · March 23

    The turntable was a feature of a train journey from Waterford to Dublin as the line ran into Kilkenny and came out along a section of the same line so there was a need for the engine to turn about and go to the end of the train to pull it out of the station again. Some who have a thing about facing the direction of travel found this disconcerting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · March 24

      I can see that. I recall my mother was always keen to face the direction of travel whenever we took a train journey.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. tanjabrittonwriter · March 23

    When you started blogging, did you anticipate telling your readers about “the romance of steam” you and Mrs. P enjoy?
    On heritage railways no less! 😊

    If my comment is too bawdy, please feel free to discard it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · March 24

      On the contrary, I awoke this morning feeling groggy and lethargic (we were out late at a show last night, and didn’t get home until after midnight) but found myself revived by your witty observation. I’m tempted to say that on heritage railways my passion know no bounds and on WordPress my life is an open book, but in reality the alternative reading of my words entirely escaped me!

      In normal circumstances I would expect a stern reprimand from Mrs P for dragging the good Platypus name through the mud, but since she reads all my posts before publication and didn’t spot my slip I think I’ll be let off with just a warning to take more care next week! Thank you for brightening up my morning. πŸ™‚πŸ™‚πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · March 25

        I’m so glad I brightened your morning and hope Mrs. P’s reprimand will be light, especially since there is nothing in your post to be ashamed of, regardless of how one reads and interprets your words. πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · March 25

        πŸ™‚

        Like

  6. krikitarts · March 24

    I never had a “toy” train setup, but I’ve been drawn to trains for as long as I can remember. When we lived in Berlin from 1968 to 1976, I grew to love train travel. We hope to do rail excursions here in NZ and also, as circumstances may allow, in Australia. Lovely post, Mr. P.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · March 24

      Thank you, Gary. Steam trains have a special magic, and recreational rail travel has an appeal all of its own. When we travelled in NZ we enjoyed our trip on the Taieri Gorge Scenic Railway out of Dunedin – spectacular!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Carol Ann Siciliano · March 27

    I enjoyed this post, and it brought back happy memories of playing Thomas the Tank Engine with my boys. The first photo of the green engine and coal car reminded me of “Henry.” And, among our very elaborate collection of tracks, we had a roundhouse turntable too. I enjoyed seeing the real things in such a lovely museum!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · March 28

      Ooh, I’m impressed. I had an electric train set train set when I was a boy, but although I remember seeing a turntable in the catalogue I never managed to acquire one. I used to love playing with my trains, and it sounds as if your boys did too. Happy days! πŸ™‚

      Like

  8. Adele Brand · April 10

    You’re right, steam engines still fascinate. I’ve been on the Pickering to Whitby one. And I’d also never considered the problem of how to turn a steam engine around but I suppose it was quite obviously an issue to the drivers of the day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · April 11

      I’ve enjoyed watching a television series about life on the Pickering to Whitby line, and fancy doing it one day.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Adele Brand · April 11

        I was thinking today of a SSSI that I once visited which was notified for Duke of Burgundy butterflies. It turned out that their habitat – shrubby grassland – was originally created and maintained by steam trains regularly setting the trackside vegetation on fire! Now of course only modern trains use the line and the habitat is at risk of getting a bit overgrown.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Platypus Man · April 12

        Fascinating, and a perfect illustration of the complexities of habitat creation / management. I hope you got to meet the Duke, who has always eluded me.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Adele Brand · April 12

        Afraid not. Had to be content with seeing his house, so to speak.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Platypus Man · April 13

        Oh, that’s a shame πŸ™. Next time, hopefully.

        Liked by 2 people

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