“ Address: Hunsbury Hill Road / Camp Hill / Northampton / NN4 9UW „
The history of Northampton tends to be hidden away or simply knocked down. We had a castle once from the civil war but that was knocked down by the king in 1662, and Delapre Abbey, also an important part of the battle between crown and parliament, now hollow and unloved. A round steeple Saxon church and 78 Derngate (the only house outside of Scotland created by some big shot jock architect) are about it as far as restoration and promotion goes here. We have Althorpe House out of town but that has become a simple money making exercise by Earl Spencer so to keep paying his many wives alimony. But up on Hunsbury Hill to the south of the town boundary we have this quaint little railway museum with working steam trains and tracks that weave through the manicured woods and cuttings that neatly dress the hill.
It's run by a railway trust and their team of guys and girls keep everything working though the summer season. They have three working steam trains, five diesel (two currently working) and some static electric units with a four mile circuit of track to play on, all this a mile or so from the main shopping centres and cinemas in the town, no one seemingly knowing about the attraction. One of the trains is used in Thomas the Tank Engine promotions and it's a great place for a school morning out. They recently spent money on a kids activity centre with adventure playground to tempt the kids and tourists up the hill in the summer and there's good free parking and picnic areas, workshops for all too learn about the trains and actually do restoration (mostly holding a paint brush). Ok, the locomotives are not big sexy ones like the Flying Scotsman with more steam coming out of their engine parts and vents than the old dears at a Tom Jones concert but they do work and the engineers enjoy explaining how the steam engine works and what the trains would do back then. If they were that cool by the time they got up speed they would run out of track. Britain invented and powered the world through the Industrial Revolution and it was diminutive workhorse engines like these that did the business.
The track was built in the 19th century to move iron ore from nearby quarries on places like Hunsbury hill, not as high as it once was as there was a lot of ore up there. But the motorcar and the M1 put an end to all that in the next century and now Northamptonshire is crossed by a ghost line that used to run from west to east (the one where the Great train Robbery took place on) and the museum track now beached up on the hill with nowhere to go or connection to the main lines. But there is still something romantic about disused railway lines and riding on any form of steam powered transport of old so well worth a wander up there. The museum and rides are open in the summer months and you can book ahead for rides in the restored carriages. They even do corporate parties in the summer to make extra money, the museum free to enter and dependent on donations.
The park the railway weaves through remains fairly unused high on Hunsbury Hill where, also unseen and exploited, is an old Iron Age hill fort site from the 4th century, a protected monument yet no actual monument, just a sunken green circle that the fort used to stand on, the Railway Trust also looking after it. There are very information plaques about it and just restored ditches and representative log wood ramparts to show what it may have looked like and yet again the town neglecting history. Sadly it was that iron ore extraction that began in 1880 that destroyed the last remains of the fort as the landowner was not fully compensated for leaving it be so smashed it up to get the last few rocks of ore there. The rabbits did the rest, burrowing into the old banks over the decades. There are a lots of rabbit poo's up there. The local Northampton Museum has lots of artifacts from the site found in the last two centuries but it would be really cool to rebuild it like they did the Globe in London. Even the council website has the bare minimum on the railway and fort site in short pithy sentences.
If you want a budget morning out with the kids and space for them to run around then the park and museum are ideal in the spring and summer. Kids like open spaces and woods and love trains, this a real life train set for them to play on. Mum can chat up the oily engineers and there are also some nice walks up there with good views of the town.