Mighty mechanisms of the age of steam

6th February 1998 at 00:00
What sort of museum these days is without video and slide shows, has no animatronics or electronic wizardry and has just four buttons to press? A museum that receives letters from its young visitors with such comments as: "Really cool! I'd like to come again."

The British Engineerium is a working steam museum housed in the original Goldstone Victorian water pumping station at Hove in East Sussex. It is home to dozens of steam engines of every conceivable type. From pocket size to king size; traction engines and steam-driven fire engines; steam coffee grinders and watchmakers' tools; pumps, agricultural machinery and massive beam engines. If it needed coal and water to power it, here you will find it.

Museum education officer Sue Wadbrook says it is immensely popular with primary schools learning about the Victorians, transport, the Industrial Revolution and forces and motion. "I can't count how many times people have said to me that children are only interested in computers and television screens," she says, blowing the theory to pieces by adding, "Immediately they step in here they are dumbfounded."

Sue Wadbrook says education is the museum's priority. And as for the refreshing lack of 20th-century gimmickry: "We rely on people. The person with the children is far more important than any button. Nobody remembers why they pressed a button." All school parties are accompanied by their own museum guide.

The pre-visit activity material is so good it gives the (mistaken) impression that this place was devised solely for children. It introduces the friendly Goldstone Giant, who not only illustrates the enormousness of the Victorian pumping station and its Brobdingnagian beam engines, but also explains why it was built to pump water to Victorian Brighton.

The giant theme is expanded inside the museum. Before their tour children visit the Giant's Toolbox. Here they can try for themselves brightly coloured, big, bold, fun models and gadgets which cleverly illustrate the principles behind fulcrums, cylinders, pistons, rotary motion, levers, gears, power, energy and pumps.

Most exhibits are housed in the old coal store, a building that is galleried and makes its principal exhibit - a 16-ton engine with 4m flywheel - look Lilliputian.

A short tunnel leads from the coal store to the boiler house, where four huge boilers are beautifully restored, with gleaming brass and copper, pipes and pressure gauges. Arrows painted on the pipes show the path the steam takes. Here the theme of the Goldstone Giant is reinforced. The children look out for his hat, boots, a giant cup and saucer and even for a giant sandwich.

The star of the show is the 1875 Eastons Anderson beam engine. It is restoration of the highest degree - they even scraped back umpteen layers of paint to find out what colour it was originally - and represents everything Victorian engineering stood for: massive, resilient and beautifully functional. Once a term it is steamed up especially for schools. If demand is sufficient, further steam-ups can be arranged.

The British Engineerium, off Neville Road, Hove, East Sussex BN3 7QA. Tel: 01273 559583. Open daily. Children Pounds 2.75 per child, teacher free. Book first. School Steam Days: March 2 and June 8, 1998

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