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The Grampian Transport Museum stands in the village of Alford, in Aberdeenshire, some 23 miles west of Aberdeen. What you find is an outstanding museum which is home to a large, varied, extremely impressive and beautifully cared for collection of transport exhibits. This is a museum it is well worth travelling some distance to enjoy.
The idea of a transport museum for Grampian Region had been in the air since the 1970s. At the beginning of the 1980s Alford emerged as the favoured location, at the same time as funding became available from Council and European sources to supplement the efforts of local fundraisers. In April 1983 the Grampian Transport Museum was opened in its current premises, just on the north side of the centre of Alford. Two years later it was joined by the Alford Valley Railway Museum based in the old railway station a few hundred yards away.
The entrance to the museum faces on to Alford's main car park. Beyond the distinctive white arch are a range of outdoor exhibits including a Scorpion tank, a Saracen armoured car, a traction engine, an Aberdeen Corporation Gasworks steam engine and, perhaps the ultimate in transport, a Tardis. This selection of more durable and weatherproof exhibits set the scene nicely for what you find inside the museum itself.
But before you enter, it is worth taking note of the path off to the right. This leads to the large oval track which hosts a range of special events over the summer, complete with its own grandstand. These events include the annual Alford Autumn Autojumble; the Grampian Motorcycle Convention; family fun days; performance and sports car rides; "Big Stuff" days allowing rides on some of the museum's larger vehicles; an annual classic and vintage gathering; and "Speedfest".
The museum was traditionally also the home of the Scottish Eco-Marathon in which vehicles tried to go as far as possible on a measured amount of fuel. In August 2001 a new world record was set by a Japanese team who achieved the equivalent of 10,240 miles per gallon. Sadly 2006 was the last year in which the event was run.
The museum itself is housed in large and airy factory unit style buildings which seem ideal for displaying exhibits of very different sizes to their best effect. Once past the reception desk, you find yourself in the museum shop, complete with a range of tempting ways to spend your money. Speaking of which, the museum is also home to the Traveller's Rest Tea Room. This is open daily during the most popular times of the year, and at weekends during the rest of the museum's opening season.
The museum's display areas occupy two large interlocking roughly square buildings. What is most impressive about the Grampian Transport Museum is the combination of the quantity and the quality of the exhibits on offer. There are some really unusual items on display here, but the size of the museum means that there is also scope for a considerable breadth of coverage. A good example of this, which you see immediately on entering the museum is the extensive collection of motorcycles on view, ranging from types that many visitors might themselves once have ridden, to much more exotic vehicles. For us the highlight is the all black and very shiny "Last of the Vincents".
A mezzanine gallery offers good views over the different areas of the museum and is home to a number of collections, including most of the museum's bicycles. There are also some rather nice Meccano models on view, including a model of a Red Arrow, which on closer examination represents the Folland Gnat aircraft they flew until 1979, probably suggesting the model is well over 30 years old.
The main exhibition floors are divided into a series of themed areas. The collection of horse drawn coaches near the reception area is impressive. This is supplemented by displays themed on the art of the wheelwright, and on the operation of the first mail coaches. As you stand and admire the large red coach that is (arguably) a linear ancestor of Postman Pat's little red van, it is fascinating to see the nearby waybill dating back to a trip started on 6 May 1797 in which the mail coach from Edinburgh to London covered the 396 miles in 60 hours and 15 minutes, arriving exactly on schedule.
The museum's collection of cars is magnificent. At one end of the scale, a display of "cars for the future" can be found close to some very sleek and desirable objects that did make it into production, together with some "past cars for the future", whose time never quite arrived. "The car in society, boon or menace" offers a range of cars from Porsche to an original Mini Classic Cooper Sports 2000, plus a Ford Escort Mexico finished in what we think was originally called "Daytona Yellow" by Ford. A beautiful colour that is sadly almost absent from today's roads.
Elsewhere is a fine collection of three wheeled cars, including a highly desirable Morgan Aero from 1924, together with a bubble car and an early Reliant van that once carried laundry around Montrose. Amongst the vintage cars on show is a 1924 Durant which was laid up in a barn in 1959 and only rediscovered half a century later. When we visited, it was displayed in "as found" condition, though the eventual aim is to restore it to pristine running order. Another important individual car on show is the prototype Landrover built in 1948 and purchased by King George VI before being used by members of the Royal Family in and around Balmoral.
Larger vehicles on view include a Romani waggon, a horse drawn tram, and an electric tram built to link the now long demolished Cruden Bay Hotel with the local railway station. Another vehicle with a fascinating Aberdeenshire story is easy to overlook as it is overshadowed by its neighbour, a very large Ruston and Hornsby Traction Engine. The Craigievar Express is a steam tricycle built between 1895 and 1897 by Andrew Lawson, the Craigievar postman. It was mainly used for shows rather than to help with mail deliveries, but when you think about the pressures involved in steam power, the miracle is that either the vehicle or its owner survived at all. The Craigievar Express was restored to its current showroom condition by the late Maurice Armstrng Smith DFC in 1969, and its story and its links with the area exemplify exactly why wandering around the Grampian Transport Museum is such a joy.