The competitors line up at the start of the epic contest. Photo: Ann Clifford.
Alastair Smith, 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Journalist, travelled to County Durham on June 26 2005 to race a tram built more than 100 years ago.
When I first heard about Beamish, the North of England Open Air Museum, issuing a challenge to anyone brave enough to race one of its trams, I was curious.
Sitting in my comfy chair behind my desk, I thought the Tram Challenge was a good idea, so, with great effort I tapped away at the keyboard and wrote about it. Job done.
Speaking to 24 Hour Museum Deputy Editor, David Prudames, I enthused about the race and maybe got a little carried away with the idea. “I tell you what,” I said. “It would make an even better story if someone took part in the race”.
“Yes,” he replied. “Why don’t you give them a call this afternoon and sort it?”
Beamish recreates life in the north east as it was at two crucial points in the region's history, 1825 and 1913. Courtesy Beamish - the North of England Open Air Museum.
This is how I came to find myself in an early 20th century street on an early Sunday morning wearing shorts and running shoes. Of course there was some preparation before it got this far. I had to buy the shoes.
Normally I would consider myself to be quite fit and healthy. I do a lot of walking, to work, town or the pub. The last time I put on a pair of running shoes was five years ago for the Great North Run, which unless I’m mistaken did not involve any trams.
The race was billed as a ‘fun run’ over a distance of 2.5 km (1.5 miles), which is one lap of the museum. Of course this was a titanic battle between man and machine, youth and experience. After all, the tram ran this track several times a day and was more than four times older than me.
Lining up at the start were children and adults, most of whom looked far more professional than me, but I wasn’t racing them. My opponent was Newcastle 114, a short canopied open top 'Class A' car from 1899.
I had been told that the tram could do a mile in six minutes, this was two minutes faster than I had achieved in the three gruelling training sessions I had endured in preparation.
Our hero crosses the finish line and grabs a well-deserved bottle of water. Photo: Ann Clifford.
On completing the race I was pleased with myself that I had finished the course, although the winner had run backwards at times to watch the tram’s progress. I just about managed forwards.
The tram crossed the line in a respectable nine minutes and 44 seconds, which was not nearly fast enough to beat my time of eight minutes and 57 seconds. I finished in third place overall; perhaps motivated by the fear of 24 Hour Museum’s editorial staff forcing me to run it again if I didn’t beat the tram.
It’s lucky then that I didn't take part in the longer 10 km (six miles) route. One man who did was award-winning children’s author and 24 Hour Museum reader, Terry Deary.
Terry has written more than 140 books, including the Horrible Histories series, and was the creator of this terrible tram trial: “Over in Wales there is an event called Race the Train which is 14 miles long,” he told the 24 Hour Museum. “I wanted a gimmick for Beamish and I thought the natural one was to race the tram."
“Last year was the pilot and we managed to get about 60 or 70 people, but this year it’s nearly 300. It’s absolutely brilliant the way it has taken off.”
Like Ovett and Coe in their heyday, Smith and Deary led the field at Beamish. Photo: Ann Clifford.
Terry wasn’t trying to beat the tram in the 10 km race, as this pace can only be matched over short distances, but the event attracted runners of all abilities including very good competitors who enjoyed the challenge.
Terry’s interest in history does not stop with his books and his involvement with Beamish as a trustee. In the future he plans to build his own History Experience Park in South Tyneside.
“People will spend the day there living as Tudors and visitors can come around and join in but there will be a Horrible Histories element as well. People will be put on trial as they were in Tudor times for pinching handkerchiefs, which the visitors will see and will make a real moral decision about whether to hang them.
“I want to really take people into another world, not a museum behind a glass case, but a proper living history.”
Terry also challenged me to complete the full 10 km course next year and seemed to think that my efforts over 2.5 km were only a warm-up for a real race. My aching legs, however, felt differently.
Terry Deary getting a few warm up circuits in... Courtesy Beamish - the North of England Open Air Museum.
Sunday's competitors were awarded medals and goodie bags and all funds raised by the sponsored runners were given to help disadvantaged children from the region visit Beamish.
As for the tram, I’m sure we will meet again. Better luck next year Newcastle 114.
Alastair Smith is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the North East region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.