Barrow Hill Roundhouse firmly on track for a bright future
While indoor attractions and hospitality venues across North Derbyshire have been throwing open their doors this week, there has been one noticeable exception.
For while the leisure industry has welcomed customers back amid the latest easing of lockdown restrictions, one Chesterfield museum remains shut.
However, there is nothing sinister behind Barrow Hill Roundhouse’s decision to stay closed to the public – for the next few weeks at least.
Merely, the railway museum and engine shed is thriving and not under any pressure to attract visitor income, thanks to its thriving commercial contracts, and wants to see how the next few weeks pan out before making any firm decisions.
Indeed, Roundhouse bosses are keen to stress is it “not just a railway museum, it is a modern rail maintenance facility and innovative venue for both railway-themed events and non-railway activities”.
Alexa Stott, marketing manager, said: “We’re not under the same pressures. Other places don’t have the flexibility we have.”
Much of that sustainability down to the foresight of general manager Mervyn Allcock, the man who led the fight to save the Roundhouse when it was facing demolition after being closed by British Rail 20 years ago and was later made an MBE in recognition of his efforts.
Alongside the public museum, he pushed for a commercial side to the operation – and it is that income which has helped the Roundhouse survive the pandemic.
As well as leasing land to a locomotive preservation group and workshops to leading railway engineering companies, the Roundhouse also rents storage space to preserved and main-line train operators.
East Midlands Railway is currently utilising track to store surplus stock, including one of its famous High-Speed Trains, which have just been withdrawn from service, while Britain’s newest steam locomotive, Tornado, is visiting this week for a service ahead of a busy summer hauling excursion trains.
Mervyn says: “Commercial work is what drives this site and what has kept it alive. It means the pandemic has not caused us any financial difficulties.”
That said, Roundhouse staff and volunteers are keen to welcome visitors back, when safe to do so.
For now, they are keeping a watching brief on how lockdown easing goes elsewhere and planning a “coat of paint and general tidy up” before hopefully welcoming visitors back in the next couple of months.
Mervyn says: “We’re in a fantastic position, so we don’t have to rush to open and we don’t want to rush to open.
“Public visitors are a small part of our income, but it is our commitment to show the Roundhouse off.
Alexa says: “There’s always an element of this site that needs the public.
“We’re looking at mid-July for opening. That gives us four weeks after June 21, the next landmark in lockdown easing. We want a bit more time to get our Covid plans in place and ensure staff are ready. It gives us a bit of breathing space, to make sure our efforts aren’t wasted.”
“In terms of weekend reopening, we’re keeping things low-key. We know people want to come back and we can’t wait for people to come back, but we don’t want to be overwhelmed.”
However, the public will hopefully return in big numbers when the venue’s flagship event returns after an absence of more than two years.
Alexa says: “Rail Ale is going to be our big test. That will be the time we can celebrate reopening in a bigger sense.
The pandemic forced the cancellation of last year’s event and now this year’s has been moved to September 9-11, from its traditional May timetable, in the hope it can go ahead “as near to normal” as possible – almost 9,000 people attended over the three days of the last festival, in May 2019.
The festival sees more than 300 beers and ciders on sale in the Roundhouse and adjacent marquee, alongside a gin palace, food court, live music and afternoon train rides.
"It's amazing how the place is transformed,” says Alexa. “It becomes a very atmospheric place at night.
People are urged to secure their tickets now in case numbers have to be restricted.
Live music this year includes The Craig Charles Funk & Soul Club, as a standalone event on the Thursday night, while a number of other acts will be performing during the festival.
Alexa says: “It’s becoming a must-do event from a music point of view. The reason people come is the beer, but it’s becoming an event.”
Celebrating the past and looking to the future
The Roundhouse first opened in 1870 as Staveley Engine Shed, to serve the Staveley Coal and Iron Company, and remained operational until February 1991.
It was earmarked for demolition until it was given Grade-II listed status as Britain’s last operational roundhouse.
It reopened as a museum before undergoing a further transformation four years ago thanks to £1.3 million of Lottery funding. The money contributed towards roof repairs, a new café and commercial kitchen and new displays as the Roundhouse was reimagined as it would look in 1965, during British Rail’s transition from steam locomotives to diesel power.
However, despite the recent changes, it is not standing still.
While keen to celebrate its past – The Barrow Hill Engine Shed Society has just purchased a 140-year-old steam locomotive which had been based at the depot while operating at Staveley Iron Works, with a pledge to return it to steam – it is also looking to the future.
Spanish rail company Talgo has established a UK head office at the Roundhouse – one of its carriages is on display in the building – and although Chesterfield missed out on being home to a Talgo manufacturing facility, Barrow Hill is earmarked for a multi-million-pound innovation hub.
Bob Burgess, a trustee of the Roundhouse, says: “It’s a big plan for the future.
“We’re working towards a project that would mean the best of railway research and innovation. It has massive potential and it will be up there as world-beating.”