The next bead stands as a small shed near on the green of the forgotten conservation area, just a short walking distance from both Mitcham and Wandle. A small green, War remembrance cross. Outside you could mistake it for the service building for the nearby Vestry Hall.
At the entrance I am greeted by most friendly volunteer ladies in their sixties.
They start a video recording on a small screen that tells me about the Surrey Iron Railway: it was the first public railway which started back in the 1803, the times so far away, they actually needed to specify the the railway is “Iron”.
The railway was closed in 1838, as profitability fell, but in part it coincides with the current tramway tracks.
Merton got the railway and I got another string that assembles this place all together. From the very first railway venture – to one of the last pieces of track laid on the ground in London. The string of the necklace is penetrating the space-time somewhere here. As museum puts it, history has come a full circle.
“Public” those days meant a bit different to the to what it does now. In this case means that anyone from those humming factories along the way with a carriage and a horse could take it to the rails to transport their goods between Mitcham and Wandsworth.
If only we could realise the same feat today!
Wouldn’t it be lovely if the locals could keep a standard gauge cars in their garages, took it to the rails every morning and speed away on a variety of wacky DIY carriages.
Wouldn’t it be a beautiful addition to the follies of London?
Of course it would. But a man can dream…
And I cannot: the museum is just one room. It obviously is not trying to pull a fancy look: the information is printed on the small sheets and pinned to the blue boards on walls. A few artefacts, but mostly photos, copies and tokens. Facts over entertainment, lavender, Liberty of London, bleaching, snuff.
The central exhibit of the room is the Wandle valley itself, designed to generally show the kids how the river valleys are formed. It’s oversized vertically to stress the depressions: the Wandle here tries to us make believe it is a Grand Canyon hidden beneath the fortifications of London suburbia. Perhaps, it is a bit jealous of the hilltop Wimbledon after all. Wandle wants to show it is absolutely as high – jut in the opposite direction.
Clearly constrained by the funding, this museum is great on making the exhibition relevant by involving well-known companies that once had their factories on the Wandle and are still around today. This is a cunning move: connections are appealing to those idle strollers popping in. The strings of the necklace collide and form a rope that is still seen. We still can go to the Liberty of London, get a pint of Young’s brewery and enjoy the designer legacy of William Morris.
It makes an intimate, homey place. By playing on the familiar, the museum gets over the message it has to tell. And that is the most important.
I express my gratitude for the exhibition to the ladies. They are cheered up and tell me there are plans to move over to bigger premises and this has been going for since quite some time, hurdled by an obscure litigation.
I make a casual comment that any place bigger than this shack should be amazing.
They agree. And by the way, would I consider a volunteering opportunity?
There is a glimps of hope in their eyes: these kinds of places long for people under fifty to volunteer. It is hard to say I would not, but I would write about them and recommend wholeheartedly to come and visit.
So I do.