Friday, January 3, 2014

Iron and Water: the Kew Bridge Steam Museum

Given that my modelling career came to an abrupt halt after an attempt on an Airfix version of the plane my father flew in in the war ended with upside down wings, glued together fingers and paternal disappointment, a museum dedicated to engineering should not really be my sort of thing. But Kew Bridge Steam Museum (currently being refurbished, and due to reopen in March 2014 as the Museum of Steam and Water) is an unsung delight. It’s housed a couple of hundred yards down the road from Kew Bridge in what used to be a pumping station for extracting water from the Thames. The stern, solid, High Victorian brick building is topped with an uncompromisingly phallic tower.

Room after room is filled with pumping machines, fifty or sixty feet high, assertively metallic, tightly welded. In one room a machine is operating, and its clank and hiss goes on and on with the determination and power of a repeated prayer. There is very little concession to the human scale, and you feel small and insignificant in the face of these titans of steel and water. But when you make your way up to the gallery, you find that the machines are actually there to serve humanity. A display tells a little known story. In the early seventeenth century, Sir Hugh Myddleton, an enterprising  Welsh cloth-maker, goldsmith, banker and entrepreneur oversaw the construction of the New River, an ambitious engineering project which brought water from the River Lea near Ware in Hertfordshire down to the River Head, in what is now Clerkenwell. That’s where the ‘well’ in Clerkenwell comes from; it was once literally a well, where people would get their water.
Sir Hugh Myddleton commemorated in Islington
Sir Hugh, commemorated with a statue and a couple of schools in Islington, began the provision of reliable, clean water to Londoners, which the heavy duty giants of metal and steel, constructed with the world-mastering fervour of the Victorians, continued. The fact that we can drink and wash and flush our toilets is thanks to these machines, and to the men who built them.

Facing recently built riverside flats and the slow moving sludge of traffic on the A315, the museum is a throwback to an age when industry made Britain rich and powerful. It’s something of a throwback in other ways too. It’s the sort of museum I used to visit in my boyhood in the 1970s. There’s not a screen in sight, just pasteboard displays with informative drawings and densely typed text. The shop is housed in a prefab in the car park, and sells single finger Kit Kats and popular social histories of World War Two. The cafe offers homemade sandwiches and flapjacks, and advertises its soft drinks with emptied cans of the half dozen brands on sale. On the fridge there’s an exhortation not to open it or take anything out of it. When I suggest to the woman serving that this might interfere with the core functions of a fridge, she tells me it’s there to stop the other volunteers helping themselves.

The key is there: volunteers. This is a museum which is curated and administered with the sort of love that money can’t buy. You feel it wherever you go. That more than anything is what won me over, for all my resistance to things mechanical. When it reopens in March, I fear I might miss the engaging amateurism of its old incarnation, but I’ve got a year’s membership, and I’ll be back.

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