I celebrated the New Year in York with some dear friends from my university days. They live in the centre of the city, with an unbelievable view of the imposing Gothic cathedral York Minster from their living room window.
York’s exactly what you expect from a UK city; winding cobbled lanes, overhanging buildings and old stone churches. We strolled the streets, wrapped up warm against the winter wind. We craned our necks to look up at the Minster’s turrets and huge stained glass windows. We shared tea, cake and good conversation in a friendly, old-fashioned tea room.
On New Year’s Day, we visited the National Railway Museum. When it comes to museums, I’m usually a café and gift shop kind of girl. I just want to have a quick look at the exhibits and then go and get a cup of tea. You know, like a true historian! But my friends knew better than I did when they suggested this trip. The museum was fascinating.
I’ve always loved to travel by train. As a student on the east coast of Scotland, I would love the quiet time I spent on the West Coast mainline. I would read, nap and listen to music as the beautiful countryside sped past outside. (If you’re a British reader, you’ll know I was mostly travelling off-peak on a Wednesday to get close to having a seat at all!) So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find so much of interest among the old British Rail, Eurostar and Japanese Bullet trains.
Royal Train Travel
The highlight was the museum’s collection of beautiful royal carriages, including a recently-restored wooden train, which was built in 1869 for Queen Victoria. It reflects the opulence of a royal lifestyle at this time. The exterior of the train is decorated with 23.5 carat gold leaf. The beautiful interiors include figured silk seat backs, hand basins made of silver and fragile peacock-blue silk decoration.
Traveling With Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria, our guide explained, had specific ideas about how she wanted to travel. When brand new electric lights were installed in the train, the queen rejected the new-fangled technology, ordering that they be ripped out immediately and the original gas lamps returned. She insisted the train only travelled at 40 miles per hour when she was on board. Drivers who travelled more quickly were fined. The train would always be stopped for meals and when the queen wanted to enjoy views over her kingdom.
The queen didn’t travel alone. At the back of the train, there was a plain, gothic-style carriage for John Brown, her personal attendant with whom she had a controversial friendship. Later, her secretary and friend, Abdul, used this carriage. The train itself was used in the 2017 film Victoria and Abdul, under strict supervision of National Railway Museum staff, who made sure the fragile interiors were protected during filming.
Queen Victoria was the first British royal to travel by train. Her carriages remain intact only because, when they were sent back to the carriage works after her death, the makers didn’t have the heart to break them up. I don’t know if they were thinking about the train’s place in history, or whether they simply couldn’t bear to take apart something on which they’d worked so hard. Whatever the truth, what a gift to have this beautiful piece of history available to see and learn about for free today.
For An Authentic York Experience…
- Eat: a YorkyPud wrap – a traditional roast dinner wrapped up in a large Yorkshire pudding. Trust me. You won’t be sorry.
- Drink: tea the way it’s meant to be drunk at Betty’s Tea Rooms.
- Stay at: Dean Court Hotel, for cosy spaces and unrivalled views of the Minster in the heart of the city.
- Shop: on the Shambles, York’s most famous street, where you can pick up artisan chocolate, handmade fudge, contemporary jewellery and all the Harry Potter merchandise you could ever want in a truly picturesque Elizabethan setting.
- Visit: the National Railway Museum to see Queen Victoria’s train for yourself.