From our friend in Belfast: secrets and lines

In his continuing series of reports highlighting unmissable and occasionally eccentric diversions in Belfast, Richard Weston of Ace Jet 170 stumbles upon a secret society.

If you go down in the woods today (well, not actually the woods, just kind of besides the woods, down at the bottom of the hill, tucked to the right of the Ulster Transport Museum's Air and Sea annex) you'll find a rather tired looking railway station, approaching Lilliputian scale.

You'd be forgiven for thinking it abandoned. Time your visit badly and it can be a little overgrown; it's always a bit shabby. But time it well, probably during the summer (I'd suggest a Saturday afternoon) and you might be lucky enough to hear the "toot toot" of a shrill whistle just before a pipe-smoking old geezer comes chugging through the red brick archway astride his steam-driven, out-of-scale engine.

The miniature railway at the Ulster Transport Museum has been on this site since 1970. Legend has it it recamped here after its previous home was vandalised and the new, slightly obscure location offered a welcome safe haven.

The lines are run by a committed body of enthusiasts (The Model Engineers' Society of Northern Ireland to give them their rightful name) who inhabit a private, untidy but basically magical world, largely hidden from view. Mostly men (no surprise there) of varying age meet in this secret garden to fiddle with their valves and tinker with their crankshafts.

I remember the first time we discovered the full extent of their domain. You see most people are content with sitting on the mini platform to wait, patiently, for their turn. But we're far too nosy and display far too little respect for other people's property to settle for such pedestrian idleness. We're snoopers through and through, so casually strolled up the rough track that runs the length of the wall that hides the chuffer's kingdom. Once round the corner you get a much better, much more interesting picture of what's actually going on.

Two tracks, of different gauges, sweep across and around surprisingly neat lawns. To the far side there's a club room and little further back, amongst the trees, are well-equipped workshops, store rooms and a maintenance area, where engine servicing occurs.

The natives were friendly and even though we were technically trespassing, they welcomed us in, gave us a thorough tour, showed us their lathe and invited us to become one of them. Perhaps a bit too eagerly.

Although we politely declined their invitation, I can't deny being tempted. It was a compelling offer: give up our safe and cosy Saturday routine in favour of a thrilling, adventure-packed, seat-of-the-pants new life aboard a steam engine hardly bigger than your kettle; hidden from the prying eyes of the proletariat and safe from the destructive endeavours of the scumbag vandals.

But the truth is, our interest in steam is limited, we were there for the snooping as much as anything. 

Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, Cultra, Holywood, Belfast BT18 0EU. Tel: 028 9042 8428
For further information, visit the online home of The Model Engineers' Society of Northern Ireland

Posted in Belfast, Richard Weston, UK

From our friend in Belfast: whose ism is it anyway?

Launching The Look Of London

You Might like

Our guides are printed in England on 100% recycled paper