Hot Steam

Sunday morning spent at the London Museum of Water and Steam? I know what you’re thinking. We were too.

My uncle Brian had come down from Weymouth. He’d left early pearly, stopped in a McD’s.. highly unusual activity for him.. for breakfast. ‘You know, I was surprised by how clean it was,’ he said. I know! For me too, like a guilty pleasure almost every time. ‘What would you ladies like to do today?’ he said as we crowed around him. ‘The fun fair?’

Fun fair! The cries were like seagulls. For days we’d seen the signs near our house. But where exactly was it? It was just outlined by an arrow that made you want to go. Brian went on a recce while we got changed. While he was gone, the phone rang. His son. My cousin.

No fun fair, my cousin maintained. Much better to go to the Museum of Water and Steam. Just near Kew Bridge. Plenty of parking. ‘And today they’re going to fire up the engines.’

‘That’s great,’ we said.

Brian came back. The girls looked at him like he could possibly broker a peace accord. ‘How was the fun fair?’ He shook his head slowly. ‘I didn’t think it was a good sign when the biggest ride was called The Dominator.’

‘Piles of puke?’ I asked him quietly. Last night had been Saturday.

He shuddered.

So with heavy hearts, we went to find an education on a Sunday. And of course, because it’s London, because we’re in the UK and because the UK has the coolest geeks in the world (oh yeah) it was a surprise.

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We found engines. The 100 inch engine. The Maudslay engine. The Hathorn Davey Triple Expansion Engine. The Waddon Engine. Like a strange and slightly exotic language.

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Of course mostly no clue how any of it works. It’s the craftsmanship of these machines. We stood around, sighing. ‘Things that were made to last.’ Like an old, almost lost idea. It’s like when nations demonstrate their relics from their ‘golden age’. Italy has the Renaissance. The Ancient Egyptians. Classical Greece. It seems when you visit these hand-crafted, still-working machines, ours was the industrial revolution.

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Still, we are a pragmatic island. These were working objects designed to make money. As you discover this building, you realise this former River Thames pumping station was in fierce competition. Just as now, pumping stations and water works were trying to get your business. Direct water supply to homes in the 19th century was a hot household improvement. In response, the development of better pumping methods went more and more bad ass. Literally. Even Charles Dickens came down to this waterworks on an assignment with a household magazine and gave the written thumbs-up.

Back to the geeks. Every weekend volunteers come out of pure love and fire up the different engines. A narrow-gauge railway outlines the building. In a green ‘Wren’ locomotive, they take you to the shed to see the other locomotives. Boy, I’ve just realised how that sounds.

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The locomotive driver. His colleague, Oliver. The tour guide. Fifteen minutes to tell us about this beautiful place. ‘He’s nice, no?’ I elbowed my aunt. She shrugged and gave me the stink eye. After our thanks, I saw him in the cafe on his own, eating his lunch.

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‘Did everyone enjoy themselves?’ he asked. Polite even when his mouth was full of salad. On the other end of the cafe, my uncle was just about to knowingly sit on a whooppee cushion we’d picked up in the shop. Our girls’ squawking had become the giggles of pug-faced monkeys. ‘Oh yeah,’ I said. Sunday morning in the Steam museum. Family you haven’t seen together forever. Like you saw them yesterday. Long live the industrial revolution.

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