Like me, you might not need an excuse to visit a transport museum, but if you do, here’s a good one, says Let's Talk's motoring writer David Clayton.

The East Anglia Transport Museum (EATM) at Carlton Colville is celebrating 50 years of being open to the public on Sunday, May 29. They’ll have trams and trolleybuses running around their grounds and you’ll be able to have guided tours of their sheds and workshops. You’ll even be able to hop on a vintage bus or two for a free park and ride service to and from Beccles and Lowestoft.

Needless to say, for someone who’s written and broadcast about old vehicles for decades, I’m fascinated with the place, but more so with the people who made it all happen and keep it running today.

The story begins a decade earlier than 1972, when an old Lowestoft tram body was rescued from a wooden bungalow which was about to be demolished. It wasn’t unusual for old train, bus, and tram bodies to be utilised in such a way as to extend or even create a home when housing was in short supply. Much of Lowestoft tram number 14, dating from 1904, had been doing sterling service as an add-on summer house.

Great British Life: A flashback to 1962 when the tram body which had been a summer house was being 'rescued'.A flashback to 1962 when the tram body which had been a summer house was being 'rescued'. (Image: East Anglia Transport Museum)

The men who saved that bit of their local transport history went on to start what became the Transport Museum, opening to the public 10 years later. These days, with extra land bought and now under development, the museum will double its size and in turn, the ability to give longer rides on their many preserved vehicles.

You have to be of a certain age to remember the feel and sound of a trolleybus, picking up its current via two long poles from overhead wires. There wasn’t much sound, just the whirr of the electric motor as the driver pulled away from the stop. It’s a vivid memory for me to this day. In fact, the museum’s brochure suggests that you, 'experience the silent service aboard an electric trolleybus'.

Great British Life: The evocative (for David Clayton) overhead wires on which the trolleybuses and trams run.The evocative (for David Clayton) overhead wires on which the trolleybuses and trams run. (Image: David Clayton)

I used to travel on some Middlesbrough Corporation trolleybuses near where I lived as a lad and was fascinated by the complicated criss-cross wires high above the road, especially at a busy junction. As you looked up, they seemed to blot out the daylight. It was the first thing I looked at when I popped over to the EATM to talk to Tony Chilton, have a walk around and meet some of the volunteers. Tony is a former treasurer and has been involved with the museum for 26 years.

Great British Life: Tony Chiltern in one of the tram and bus sheds.Tony Chiltern in one of the tram and bus sheds. (Image: David Clayton)

Despite not being open to visitors the day I paid a visit, there was plenty of maintenance work going on. That morning some 25 or so volunteers had been painting, restoring, track laying and cleaning.

I was particularly interested to go and see an old Great Yarmouth Corporation double decker as Tony took me round their maintenance sheds. The Leyland PD2 was introduced to the fleet in 1949 and when I was travelling to school in Yarmouth back in the early 1960s, I rode on it many times.

The bus is undergoing a complete restoration under the watchful eye of 18-year-old Lewis Barnes. “I’m project lead on this,” he tells me, proudly. There’s a team of experienced volunteer mechanics with him, of course, but he spends as much time as he can with '66', as it’s known as that was its fleet number when in service. While my love of old buses seems logical because I travelled on them, I wondered what drove his interest in vehicles from a bygone age.

Great British Life: Lewis Barnes working on the Great Yarmouth Corporation Leyland '66'.Lewis Barnes working on the Great Yarmouth Corporation Leyland '66'. (Image: David Clayton)

“My Grandad had two old cars which I look after now. I’ve been here five years volunteering," he explains. There was no doubt about Lewis’s enthusiasm when I asked him how often he came to the museum. “Every living hour,” was his enthusiastic reply.

Tony has promised me that when its restored, I can have a drive of the old Yarmouth bus. “Hurry up and get it finished,” I said to Lewis, cheekily. He promised he would, no doubt slightly concerned about me possibly taking the wheel at some point.

There’s more to look after than trams and buses. The upkeep of the entire site needs constant work from the army of volunteers. Fred Southgate was busy tidying up a garden near the narrow-gauge railway. He’d travelled from his home in Brentwood to stay in the area and do some garden maintenance ahead of the opening season, something he does regularly throughout the year.

Great British Life: Former London bus driver Fred Southgate, from Brentwood, working on the gardens at the East Anglia Transport Museum.Former London bus driver Fred Southgate, from Brentwood, working on the gardens at the East Anglia Transport Museum. (Image: David Clayton)

“I came here for a look around while staying at a nearby holiday camp 25 years ago,” he tells me. Fred’s in his eighties and spent 33 years driving London buses but has never wanted to drive them at the museum. He gave up his driver’s license as soon as he retired, but it seems he can’t quite detach himself from the sights and sounds.

Another museum member and volunteer, Tim Major, was pushing a wheelbarrow when I bumped into him. With the museum closed, it was a good time to work on one of the roadways. Tim was just like me, having developed a fascination for the vehicles he travelled on as a lad. We both mused that in our younger years, we had to use public transport much more than children seem to today, as many more families have cars, sometimes more than one. Tim became a member of the museum 51 years ago, just before it opened to the public.

Great British Life: An early photo of the museum being open to the public.An early photo of the museum being open to the public. (Image: East Anglia Transport Museum)

“It’s quite remarkable looking at it all now because this was just a meadow,” he recalls, pointing to the area around the trolleybus depot. “I remember helping to lay the tram tracks when I first joined.”

David Jordan is the museum’s chairman, something he’s done for 17 years now, over two stints. He joined when he was 14. “Back then I wanted to meet up with other transport enthusiasts,” he explains.

He’s seen a few more eager 14-year-olds join since then. “Ollie Harris, who’s in his mid-twenties, now takes responsibility for our fleet of trams. He used to come here with his mum before he became a junior member. He went on to get all the necessary professional engineering qualifications.”

The same applies to Connor Drage, a Carlton Colville lad. “His mum used to bring him after school on every day that the museum was open from when he was about seven. He’s now a fully qualified PCV engineer and maintains our fleet of buses and trolleybuses.”

David was eager to stress this is serious stuff, as regulations demand the museum’s vehicles are maintained and run to the very highest of standards, whether or not they run on public roads.

Great British Life: One of the main streets of the museum at Carlton Colville now.One of the main streets of the museum at Carlton Colville now. (Image: David Clayton)

It’s not been easy during the pandemic.

“We were determined not to make it an excuse to stay closed. Whatever we were allowed to do, we did with all the necessary precautions in place,” David explains.

It’s the bulk of their income, after all. In addition, they’re becoming more experienced at applying for whatever grants they can, to boost the museum’s income both to expand and to care for the wide-ranging collection. For the odd special project, like the new expansion, their 700 or so generous members will reach into their pockets to help.

Great British Life: Tram tracks running towards the new area which will double the size of the museum.Tram tracks running towards the new area which will double the size of the museum. (Image: David Clayton)

This is a gem of a museum run by volunteers who really care about our transport history where we all live.

As David Jordan says, “We’re running every vehicle we can on the day. If we can get it out of our sheds and depots, you’ll see it running.”

EATM@50 runs from 11am to 5pm on Sunday, May 29 at the East Anglia Transport Museum, Chapel Road, Carlton Colville, Lowestoft, Suffolk NR33 8BL.

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