Her Majesty The Queen prevented Glynne Henshall from attending the grand opening of Crewe’s Heritage Centre, but he soon developed an affinity for the place. He would become a regular working volunteer, and over twenty two years later he’s still keen to preserve the town’s railway past…
“The railways have always been a part of my life. I started school at Pedley Street, which was a railway building, before they moved us to the Hungerford Road School. Then my teenage years were spent at one of the town’s older education establishments, Crewe Grammar School which is now Ruskin Sports College. Like many lads I then went straight into ‘The Works’ in 1980 and completed a four-year apprenticeship. We spent a lot of time in the training classrooms by the Chester Line. It was a good grounding, and I’ve never looked back.”
A few years after he completed his training, the town’s Heritage Centre was opened. Glynne, however, missed the official launch because of a special guest at Crewe Works. “When the new centre opened I was at work, but we still got to meet The Queen. She came into ‘The Works’ to inspect the new locomotives that were being built. The team that had coordinated the open day a few weeks earlier, which kicked off the heritage festival, were presented to Her Majesty, although we didn’t get to say hello. So because I was busy at work I didn’t get to see the exhibition for a couple of weeks. Eventually, I came down to help with Brian Metcalfe’s model railway – and I’ve been here ever since. I began running the model displays and telling visitors about the engines and scenes that had been built. It was an impressive plot, and there was a lot more space when it all opened – including the land where the supermarket now stands. The main exhibition hall looked permanent when it was constructed, but they told us that it was only intended to be an eight-week project. It was just a celebration to mark Crewe’s 150th birthday. That’s become a running joke, especially when we’ve repaired things around the site. We always tell each other not to worry because it’s only here for a few more weeks!”
Funding is always an issue for charitable organisations, but because of confusion about the centre’s lifespan it remained unclear how the management would sustain operations over a longer period. “Everything about that first year was temporary, so I didn’t think beyond 1987. I just enjoyed helping out. When it did continue, there were only a handful of volunteers involved. The council had employed several staff during the early years, and then a trust assumed control. However, it soon became clear that money was tight. So it would be good to have more financial support, but a number of other factors have made things awkward. We had a workshop built with some of the cash we received from the sale of the supermarket land, but we have never had full access to that facility. A private engineering organisation started renting it and that generated a small income for us, but it also meant that we couldn’t apply for other grants because there was a commercial operation on site. Their involvement works two ways. It can provide some great display items when they are completing work on locomotives, carriages and other vehicles, but it also means that we cannot utilise the workshop fully ourselves. Also, because of health and safety issues, it makes it very difficult to bring school children around the centre during the week.”
Once labelled ‘The Railway Age’, the Heritage Centre is, seemingly, in the ideal position, but there have also been limitations. “The location is great because it’s next to the station, on former railway land and also handy for the town centre. However, because of the rail lines, road and the supermarket, expansion has always been difficult. We didn’t know about Safeways – now Tescos – to start with, as that was a deal done by the council a couple of years after we opened. It’s helped in some ways, as visitors can use the large car park on busy open days, and I suppose we attract a few people who also come here to shop. Unfortunately, it left us without much space, and if you’re bringing large locomotives to be restored and displayed you need somewhere much bigger than our existing site. So there have been many discussions over the years about whether we should look for somewhere else, perhaps further down the tracks where other old Crewe Works land is available. As usual, anything like that would cost thousands of pounds, money a charitable organisation like us does not have. We have always had ideas and plans, and when the land was split we did get some money. Unfortunately, too much of that was spent on designs that never came to fruition.”
Politics and administrative hassles aside, there have been some exciting projects undertaken by The Heritage Centre team. “A lot of locomotives have been brought here, and engines like the class 47 that we have on site, number D1842, which was the first to be preserved. It was Crewe-built, and that’s the reason this centre is here. Working on engines like that maintains a connection with the past, and it certainly sets it apart from other projects. Then around 1991 there was Robert, the first steam engine to be restored in Crewe after Oliver Cromwell was in 1967. There are some Crewe locos over at the National Rail Museum in York, but that’s not a problem as some suggest. York already had a tourist industry when they were looking for a national centre, although I believe that Crewe was discussed many years ago. They probably talked about this plot, before it was cleared in the early 1980s. There was a collection at Clapham in London originally, plus several other sites around the country. So they wanted to bring it all together, and York was chosen. They have been good to us, so there’s no jealousy. In fact, they have so many exhibits behind the scenes that they would willingly loan us enough to fill an exhibition hall here if we had the space. Again, that’s all about money. There’s an ongoing dialogue and if we need something they will usually supply it. Maybe we’ll get some more space if a mystery benefactor steps forward!”
The ongoing concern remains visitor numbers and how to attract more people to the centre. “A lot of volunteers put some seriously hard work into this place. We always need more, and I’d like to see younger people getting involved, hopefully bringing fresh ideas with them. What we need is to get more people through the doors at weekends and at our special events, as that’s our main source of income. The dilemma for the centre’s team is how often to refresh the exhibition items. Would regular changes encourage the same people to come more than once each year? What we have done is form relationships with other Crewe organisations, Bentley Motors, Whitby Morrison and Mornflake Oats. With a wider range of exhibits we will hopefully appeal to a wider cross section of people. It’s difficult at times remaining positive, but I must enjoy it as I keep coming back. There’s a few years left in me yet, at Bombardier or elsewhere, but even when I retire I’m sure I’ll still be helping to preserve Crewe’s heritage. There’s a core of about 15 volunteers busy on projects and keeping the place running. Whatever the future holds I hope they are all treated properly. It’s important that we keep the centre going for the kids who will grow up with no understanding of the railways and what they did for Crewe across the years.”
Glynne’s story appeared in “Crewe And Its People” that was published back in 2009; the stories will be posted here between February and June as a permanent series of social history documents for Cheshire. A second volume of fascinating Crewe life stories will be available to buy from September 2016.