Local railway museum gets prestigious ‘Oscar of steam’ at top awards ceremony

Left to right are: Brian Simpson, HRA chairman, Lord Berkeley, guest speaker and Headhunters runners-up Nigel Johnston, Alan Devers and Selwyn Johnston
Left to right are: Brian Simpson, HRA chairman, Lord Berkeley, guest speaker and Headhunters runners-up Nigel Johnston, Alan Devers and Selwyn Johnston

On Wednesday this page highlighted Saturday’s Heritage Railway Association (HRA) Annual Awards in Birmingham.

Representing hundreds of organisations across the UK and Ireland, HRA’s member-groups operate museums and restore and run trains, trams and railways, often with scheduled routes linked to our commercial railway network.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester commended Whitehead's contribution to heritage

Lord Faulkner of Worcester commended Whitehead's contribution to heritage

There were 11 category awards for 27 nominated organisations (including several individual awards) deemed to have ‘performed spectacularly well’ last year.

Whitehead’s Railway Preservation Society of Ireland (RPSI) brought home a particularly prestigious prize, the Manisty Award for Excellence, while Enniskillen’s Headhunters Railway Museum was a runner-up for outstanding achievement.

The grand function room in Birmingham’s plush MacDonald Burlington Hotel was packed with Lords, Ladies, VIPs and several hundred nominated railway enthusiasts.

The first four awards, presented by editors of popular railway magazines, went to a 100 mph steam locomotive; a vast, unique and historic 19th century engine shed; the last surviving diesel unit of its type and an individual award for Mervyn Allcock, a tireless heritage instigator, campaigner and organiser.

Whitehead's HRA Award

Whitehead's HRA Award

After the magazine awards came a special award to the late Bill Askew, a leading light in the HRA, accepted by his son James.

“It’s envelope time!” announced Master of Ceremonies Paul Lewin.

The winners’ names for the rest of the ceremony were in envelopes, each opened with all the drama, tension and razzmatazz of a peak-time TV contest!

Representatives from all sorts and sizes of railway organisations trod the winners’ podium before Northern Ireland’s first nomination was announced, for outstanding achievement.

There were three organisations in the category – the Welsh Gwili Railway, Enniskillen’s Headhunters Railway Museum and Lynton and Barnstaple Railway.

Gwili Railway is one of the UK’s most picturesque preserved steam and diesel lines, set in beautiful, undulating Welsh countryside along the River Gwili.

Devon’s Lynton and Barnstaple Railway is a two-mile roundtrip on a narrow-gauge steam railway between Woody Bay Station and Killington Lane.

Enniskillen’s Headhunters, unique for its barber shop venue, was nominated “for marking the 60th anniversary of the closure of railways in Fermanagh”.

Regular Roamer-readers may recall a report here last September about Headhunters’ evocative bus tour of former railway stations in Tyrone, Leitrim, Fermanagh and Cavan, in memory of their closure in 1957.

The tour was just one of Headhunters’ many anniversary events, but Lynton and Barnstaple Railway was deemed by the HRA to be more outstanding!

“Hard luck,” said Whitehead’s chairman Canon John McKegney to Headhunters’ chairman Selwyn Johnston.

“It’s good to have been nominated,” said Selwyn, “we’re up against big competition. Restoring locomotives and running a railway – we’re not in that league.”

Last but not least, along with Swanage Railway, Whitehead’s RPSI was nominated for the eleventh and final category – the hugely prestigious Manisty Award for Excellence.

The top prize commemorates the long-serving chairman of HRA’s predecessor organisation – the Association of Railway Preservation Societies.

The late Captain Peter F Manisty, formerly of the Royal Navy, was “the true father of railway preservation”, said Master of Ceremonies Paul Lewin.

Emphasising the importance of the award, Paul Lewin explained that it’s sometimes not awarded “because it is of such a high standard.” So were Saturday’s nominees!

“The judges asked for extra time to consider the nominations,” said Paul, opening the envelope and pausing dramatically before heralding “it’s a dead heat!”

In an historic first, two organisations went onto the podium for the Manisty Award – Whitehead and Swanage.

Dorset’s Swanage Railway is a busy vintage steam and diesel-train service through six miles of beautiful scenery, passing the magnificent ruins of Corfe Castle and travelling down to the blue-flag beach at Swanage.

Our own £4m Whitehead museum and engineering facility, with five galleries and a tea room, opened its doors in March 2017 before a formal launch last October.

It provides a vivid showcase for RPSI’s collection of locomotives, carriages, railway fixtures and fittings, such as a signal box where visitors can pull those iconic, coloured levers.

Their next steam train trips are on St Patrick’s Day, 17th March, with a top HRA award on display!

Lord Faulkner of Worcester, president of HRA, said, “this is in recognition of the contribution made by RPSI and Whitehead Railway Museum to railway heritage in Ireland and a tribute to all those volunteers who have made such a contribution over many years”.

Whitehead’s chairman, Canon John McKegney, proudly holding the heavy, blue, moulded-metal award, said they were all delighted to receive such a prestigious accolade.

He added: “It is always particularly rewarding to receive recognition from a peer group.”

While Whitehead’s representatives celebrated success, Roamer met Chris Milner, editor of The Railway Magazine.

He admitted, “a passion for Ireland’s railways” and his magazine runs a monthly Ireland page.

“Ireland is very important in the railway preservation scene,” he said, “it has a lot to offer.”

And if anyone thinks that railway heritage is a dwindling number of pensioners being nostalgic, Richard Barnes, a director of HRA, told me, “this has been our biggest event so far and we’re extremely pleased to see so many young people taking part”.

He’s proud of HRA’s member-organisations, “some with a few thousand visitors, some with millions of visitors” which he defines as “small businesses and big businesses”.

Further information about Whitehead is at www.steamtrainsireland.com and Headhunters is at www.facebook.com/HeadhuntersMuseum.