“Six months ago we were all making sandbags,” said Brian Roberts of the Crich Tramway Village. “Then after all the weather earlier in the year, when we put the sandbags out at Easter people asked if we were preparing for floods. So we said: ‘No, we’re preparing for war. Don’t you know Hitler’s on his way?’”
In actual fact, Hitler was facing invasion as the Tramway Village celebrated the D Day landings last weekend, where over 300 re-enactors donned their Allied wartime uniforms and 1944 suits and dresses at the Village 1940s weekend.
Saturday’s sun brought over 2,000 visitors, and although the rain reduced numbers on Sunday, the re-enactors were happy to get out their period brollies and rain capes. “It would have rained in 1944 too,” Brian noted.
Over a year’s preparation goes into the themed Edwardian and 1940s days at the museum, with the Tramway Village’s 200 or so volunteers and 30 staff contacting 1940s enthusiasts and vehicle owner from all over the country, and designing period ‘scenarios’ - on this occasion there were unexploded bombs to be dealt with, and busloads of evacuee children to be housed in Crich village, as well as surprise visits by Winston Churchill, Field Marshall Montgomery and George Formby.
Crich Tramway Village is home of the National Tramway Museum, set up over fifty years ago after a group of enthusiasts visiting Southampton were told they were making the last trip on a tram that was going for scrap.
“So they asked if they could buy it instead,” said museum volunteer Doug Kightley. ‘Southampton 45’ cost £10, and was exhibited around the country until the new Tramway Museum Society came across an old quarry in Derbyshire, home to the derelict Crich mineral line once owned by railway pioneer George Stephenson.
“They bought the site and the rest is history,” said Doug. “Tramways were one of the most important steps in urban social development. Before trams everyone got about by walking, then along came these marvellous things and all of a sudden instead of two miles being a long way to go, 10 miles away became achievable. It was a revolution.”
Southampton 45 was soon joined by trams from cities including Sheffield, Chesterfield, Prague, Johannesburg and Opporto, some of which had been used as garden sheds or shelters for farm animals before the society reclaimed them.
Now, said Doug, with over 70 vehicles the museum has the largest collection of trams in the country. The society has over 2,000 members, and is funded by a combination of entrance fees and grants from sources such as the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The volunteers are crucial, said Doug. “We desperately need more volunteers to help with anything from cutting grass to helping in the workshop and conducting and driving trams.”
The latter requires a full training course and tests, he cautioned, to learn the intricacies of controlling a vehicle that under the wrong conditions can act like a ten ton sledge.
The Museum includes over 250,000 photographs, and reference works on UK and international tram networks, the largest such collection in the world, said Doug, detailing, for example, the regulations for conductors regarding holes in tram stairs so drivers can see behind the tram.
“There were ‘courtesy flaps’ to cover these holes at the conductors end, and if the conductor was found with the flaps open, it was a dismissal offence,” said Doug, “as he’d be able to see the ankles of ladies coming down the stairs.”
The trams were only part of the attraction last weekend, when visitors and costumed re-enactors were able to dodge the rain on the meticulously decorated streetscape, complete with British and American soldiers, civilians and even the odd ‘spiv’ selling black market bananas.
“It’s a great location with a great atmosphere,” said Alan Bury from Worcester.French resistance member Hannah Harper,18, said: “If you like history, coming here is like a text book brought to life.”
Aclassic transport gathering takes place on 23-25 August and the 50th anniversary of the first electric tram at Crich on 13-14 Sept. See: www.tramway.co.uk