Families that are exploring the land shaped by sea and stone this summer may want to plan a trip to Whitehead Railway Museum. Promising an immersive, family-friendly experience throughout its five impressive and interactive galleries, guests will be able to rub shoulders with the giants of the steam age.
Thanks to the development of Whitehead’s railway lines by Belfast and Northern Counties Railway Company, and offers of free first-class tickets to those who moved there, people flocked in their thousands to Whitehead in the 20th Century. Since opening Whitehead Railway Museum in 2017, the site is once again attracting tourists to the picturesque seaside town.
The location of the museum dates back to 1903 when the railway opened a second platform for day trippers to allow for a separate train to head directly to the boat at Larne harbour. Then, as now, Whitehead is the only place in Ireland with two train stations.
“The railway companies were impressive marketers before marketing was a thing. They built hotels such as the Slieve Donard in Newcastle, the Laharna in Larne and the Northern Counties in Portrush to entice travel, as well as developing The Gobbins Cliff Path,” said Robin.
Robin Morton, one of more than 100 volunteers at the museum, explained that there is much more happening around the site to make it a living, breathing museum.
“The museum is wrapped around our foundry and heavy engineering workshop so you can actually see volunteers at work on the steam engines and undertaking carriage restoration work.
“Visitors on our tours have a truly sensory experience, and with our locomotives being repaired or undergoing regular maintenance work we plan for them to be here for a very long time to come,” Robin explained.
The museum also serves as the headquarters of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland (RPSI), which boasts 1,200 members on the island of Ireland, GB and across the world and began in Whitehead back in 1966.
“A range of historical stock was tucked away in sheds including an engine from 1879 and carriage from 1911 just waiting for the public to discover,” said Robin.
“To be able to open them up to the public proved how much interest there is.”
Additionally there is a station building with a tea room, stables gallery with education centre, locomotive and carriage sheds, a carriage gallery where visitors can board locomotives and sit in the driver’s seat and the machine workshop.
With five galleries, interactive exhibits and a 60ft working locomotive turntable the museum continues to develop from when it first opened in 2017, welcoming in a new generation of train-loving tourists.
“Among the exhibits is the actual carriage used by the Queen in 1953, to travel around Northern Ireland,” explained Robin.
“There was a nice follow-on to that in 2016 when the Queen visited here again; she expressed a lovely memory about Benone Strand.
“We were able to provide the same carriage and the Queen and the late Duke of Edinburgh were able to travel on that same stretch of line from Kilrea to Bellareena. She said it brought back happy memories to her.
“In addition we have the Irish state carriage that was used by the ex-President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, which Irish Rail gifted to us for the museum.”
As well as the museum the RPSI normally runs regular ‘Museum on the Move’ events with seasonal steam train excursions at Easter, Hallowe’en and Christmas.
“We also run the Steam & Jazz specials on Friday evenings in June and July, plus the Portrush Flyer to the north coast on Sundays in August and the Steam Enterprise to Dublin. Unfortunately, these were halted by the pandemic but we hope to be back on track soon,” said Robin.
“We will however still be operating short trips aboard a steam train on Saturdays during July and August. Steam engine No. 3BG Guinness, named after the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, will be in action at the museum from 12noon to 4pm. The locomotive, which was built over 100 years ago, is the star of the show when it hauls train rides up and down the museum’s main line.
“As part of the ‘Steam Saturdays’ visitors can see at close hand how this magnificent machine works. You can chat with the driver and fireman and see the footplate, the structure where the driver and fireman stand to operate the steam train.”
Visitors can indulge their nostalgia and experience a different era through the museum’s guided 75-minute tours, which is a chance to hear locally told stories of the town’s development into a popular railway town. For those keen to explore self-guided, the museum offers a downloadable audio guide for smartphones.
As well as the tours of the museum they also host events throughout the year including a Teddy Bears Picnic, an Easter Egg Hunt, European Heritage Open Days and a themed train day for Whitehead’s annual Victorian Street Fair, held in November.
As a major attraction on the Causeway Coastal Route, the museum is just 30 minutes from Belfast, and if you travel by train to Whitehead with Northern Ireland Railways, you will receive a 20% discount.
Whitehead Railway Museum welcome those of all ages to come along and meet their new mascot, Harvey the Teddy Bear, nicknamed after RH Smith Locomotive. Miniature stuffed versions of Harvey are available to purchase, along with Harvey’s new children’s book which was published in December 2020.
For those seeking a bit of nostalgia, or perhaps those wanting to imagine themselves boarding the Hogwarts Express, a visit to the Whitehead Railway Museum is a must for the ultimate family-friendly experience.
For opening hours or to learn more about the museum, or book tickets visit steamtrainsireland.com/museum-tickets