Neil Ruth gazes misty-eyed towards a collection of red-brick buildings as his mind skips happily off down memory lane.
“I remember this place from when I started in 1978,” he said: “It was derelict back then and some of the older guys used to bring us here to show us some of the old equipment that was left in the buildings.”
Wandering down the short gravel path that leads to the entrance of Fakenham Gas Museum, O&M Technician Neil is greeted by a nest of buildings that now have more than simply personal significance.
Instead of the redundant retorts and buildings that lay unused nearly four decades ago, the restored structures that now stand proudly in this pocket of East Anglia represent the entire gas industry. Flying the flag for a time that’s rapidly being forgotten.
The small museum in Fakenham is the only complete gasworks that still exists in England and Wales, and tells the story of how our forefathers used to create the gas that single-handedly powered our communities.
And as Neil quickly learns after meeting Museum Director Harry Yates, Fakenham’s historic site nearly went the same way as the rest of the country’s gasworks.
“Fate played a hand in making sure the gasworks is still here,” recalled Harry: “This site was the last of the old gasworks that was down for demolition, but something happened that meant there was a delay and it couldn’t be done when planned. The opportunity was seized upon by Mary Manning, who was secretary of the Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society at the time. She took it upon herself to make the gasworks a scheduled monument so it couldn’t be torn down.
“It meant the museum could be created in 1986 and some of the buildings were restored as a functional workplace so we can display the manufacture of town gas.”
As Neil paces around the area with Harry and former Museum Director Mike Bridges, it soon becomes clear that everything is still here just as it would have been in the late 19th century.
There’s the retort house where the giant furnaces burned, a small gasholder that pumped gas out to Fakenham’s 500 homes, the valve house, booster room and workshop. A sign even points out the gasworks street as visitors come through the gated entrance, just as drivers of the horse and carts delivering coal to the retorts would have seen all those years ago.
Neil doesn’t need any prompting though. Although this visit is the first time he’s been given a guided tour of the site, he’s passed it hundreds of times to service the regulators and pressure reduction systems at the end of the drive that leads into the museum.
“We used to have a depot here in Fakenham, but now everything’s in Norwich,” Neil explained.
“I remember being here in 1988 when the gasholder in the far corner of the museum was restored to working order and I’d love to see it going up and down again one day.”
And that’s one of several plans Harry has got in mind for the museum, if budget and safety allow.
Although the gasholder and retort house – with its 14 iron-doored retorts that used to burn at a searing 850 degrees Centigrade – are the undoubted main attractions, there are lots of other artefacts that give the museum a unique character.
A host of old gas meters display the changing face of the industry, there’s an old clocking-in machine that former workers would have used between shifts and a collection of old appliances adorn the showroom. Soon to be joined by Beatles legend George Harrison’s old gas cooker.
“We’re always being offered pieces to put in the museum,” Harry continued. “We keep an eye out for new things, but it needs to be right for what we need.”
Mike added: “It’s about remembering our industrial heritage and what gasworks were. The showroom was where you’d buy your appliances and pay your bills, so we need things that capture the gasworks’ place in the community.”
But more than anything else, it’s the public’s interest that will keep the museum glowing as a beacon of the gas industry’s past. And Neil’s trip down memory lane (and further) may have stirred up the passion of a future museum director.
“I’d love to help out here,” added Neil as he left. “Once I’ve retired when I’ve got more time, I might see if I can join the team to keep the museum going.”
Photography by Paul Tibbs