Thomas Russell Crampton was your average Victorian engineer. You know the type, phwoarsome sideburns, knocks off a few railway engine models and gauge systems, builds the odd bridge, tinkers a bit with pioneering submarine telegraph cables to France. Decides bigger is better, and invents boring machines to take carriages to France under La Manche. Hangs out with Brunels. Your bog standard, invent everything before breakfast, and change the face of civilisation as you know it kind of fellow.
And a Kentish fellow, at that. Born in Broadstairs. Which is where you’ll find the museum named in his honour in a former crenellated water tower. His water tower. And it’s quite a grand, pretty structure, hidden behind some shop fronts, opposite the station.
It’s one of those museums you thought had been glossed out of popular culture by pretty interpretation boards and the smooth, singular narratives of modern museum curation. Run entirely by (mostly retired) volunteers, it’s a pocket (and we’re talking a pair of jeans’ tiny watch pocket here) geekfest of a site comprising a barn chock full of model railways, Meccanoscapes and a real horse-drawn carriage, a ridiculously whizzy slot car racing club, a village hall, the Tower, a tiny sit and ride railway (sometimes motorised, sometimes steam) and my favourite thing – a now empty water storage facility modelled on Turkish buildings and resembling a sort of adobe igloo. There is some very random old stuff in there, including plans for the Eurotunnel, and old railway paraphernalia, but the very best bit is that if you stand right in the middle, any noise you make bounces back at you from all the walls, BBC Radiophonic Workshop-style. Do it. Forget your inhibitions, and hoot like an owl. It’s brilliant.
In the barn, there are model railways for the barely toddling, the toddling, and children. Especially children who were children at least thirty years ago (bring your rose-tinted bifocals, very senior children. You’re going to be in train heaven). Big Lottery funding means they’ve been able to afford to build a mezzanine (talented lot), for a brand new track layout. Around the walls, there are all sorts of cases filled with vintage toy engines and carriages, and there’s a brilliant bric-a-brac-style pocket money shop for pocket-sized toys. If you need a super new bouncy ball or 1970s-style pocket Rocket or omnibus, you’re going home with one, with change. (Do bring cash. It’s not really a card place.)
The train is tiny. It seats three (if they’re wee) and a driver, and goes up and down twice. But it’s a real train. And it’s less than a guinea a go. The tower is three floors of Cramptontastic information and artefacts, train brasses, maps, flowery legal documentation and matchstick models, along with all sorts about the history of transport in Broadstairs. Of particular mainly comedic appeal is the top floor listing of tram accidents from 1901 to 1905 in Thanet, including one involving a driver who jumped, hitting his head, and leaving his passengers to their fate (they were fine): a touch of the Father Dougals in the ‘Father Ted’ ‘Speed 3’ episode. There are quiz sheets to do, and a spot the mouse activity for younger children. I was rather taken with this. The staff treat children like their own grandchildren which is lovely.
The slot car aficionados meet on Thursday evenings, but they do pop out for special occasions. And they’re really special. Imagine a Scalextric set as big as a room, linked to computer screens for lap splits, and they’ll kill you for saying the ‘S’ word, but you’re there. Some of these chaps have been at this game for decades. And if you’re very lucky, they’ll let you join in too. Loos are next door if you’re so excited you’re risking weeing. It is that much fun.
At three quid a grown up and half that per child, or £7.50 for a family, you can have a full afternoon out here for under a tenner. That’s easily as wondrous as submarine telecoms and about a fifteenth as blood pressure-raising as Legoland. The only quibble is parking. There isn’t really any at the Tower, and three hours in a public car park could set you back up to an eye-watering eight quid. Worse than London. So catch a train. And then, very happily, catch some more.
Crampton Tower Museum is open daily from Easter to late September from 2-5pm, hosts several car, bus and steam fairs throughout the year, and Santa Specials every December. For information on slot car racing, go to timaru.co.uk.