Well, the Steam Highwayman’s back at home beside the Thames in the industrial East End of London, actually, but this Saturday I visited the Long Shop Museum at Leiston for the Suffolk Steampunk Spectacular – and had a great time with two interactive readings, a nerve-wracking tea duel, sales of Smog and Ambuscade and some down time exploring this fascinating museum!
Leiston has never been on my map, but I know that I’ll certainly be returning – for the museum and more besides. The Long Shop is a fascinating early factory – a preserved and partly-restored portion of the once-massive Garret works, which dominated the small county town. In the 1780s, agricultural machinery was built here – in the 1800s, traction engines and ironwork. In WWI, this was the ‘factory nearest Germany’, as well as the root of a hospital founded by the Garret family, a significant number of recruits for the war effort and much more beside. The museum is a showcase of the rural foundation of the industrial revolution and also reveals how innovative traditions rooted in local communities have influenced the very underpinnings of our modern world. Families from Leiston, whose expertise in engineering built the beautiful steam traction engines on show, contributed to the construction of Sizewell nuclear power station, just a few miles away on the coast.
Our trip to Leiston was through the torrential rain of the summer storm that broke the hottest month for years. It felt very exciting – and inspiring – to be exploring more of historic England on the road at the mercy of the weather – and prompted me to think and reconsider exactly how weather-dependent travel in the age of steam would have been. Perhaps this will play into some future iterations of Steam Highwayman? An interesting discussion with a Steampunk at the stall about cattle drovers – their coats, roads and traditions – might play into this.
We set up inside the teashop and laid out our stall, including, for the first time, large digital prints of Ben’s illustrations for Smog and Ambuscade. I think these look really smart and, sold in cardboard tubes, they slipped into my shopping bags really nicely.
The day was hosted by Dean Allen Jones of Nothing Up Our Sleeves magic – and he did a fantastic job of involving newcomers, hyping my reading and keeping the day running to (Steampunk) time.
Two traction engines were in steam – including a unique Suffolk Punch, built here on site – and a unique little tank engine, called the Sirapite, that had once been part of the MacAlpine collection. Morris-dancing from an as-yet-unidentified group took place and there were a few other stall-holders too – including one offering interesting steampunk soft toys!
I participated in a really hand-shakingly nervous tea duel with a mysterious lady in lilac, but some dastardly play prevented the Steam Highwayman from demonstrating the inevitability of the revolution of the proletariat. Still, this was my favourite duel yet and my wife Cheryl’s first experience of watching it.
If you haven’t ever made your way to the Leiston Long Shop but you’re interested in the rural roots of the industrial revolution, this place is a must. The long shop itself – a galleried workshop – has a fascinating architectural structure with a hybrid wooden and iron frame. Exhibits of machinery on the ground and tools and displays on the galleries are well-labelled and engaging – and there’s even some hands-on stuff too.
While there I also continued to promote the Steam Highwayman: Highways and Holloways Kickstarter and found myself at least one new backer from the participants. As I write, we’re at 83% and only looking for another 25 or so backers to fund the project fully. It’ll be great to be sending out copies with a touch of Leiston in them – either in the illustration or in the edited adventures. In the afternoon I read from Volume II for the first time and was gratified to find the audience just as engaged – and just as keen to rob and steal in the name of adventure.
Where is the Steam Highwayman headed next? Well, subscribe to my blog here or follow me on Facebook as I organise the next events over the summer season. I can confidently say that I’ll be attending the Essextraordinaire at Maldon Museum of Power in September but aIso hope to be out reading and publicising before then. If you’ve an event and you think a Steampunk Highwayman with interactive readings and book signings could add to it, let me know and I’ll descend like the night – sudden and unstoppable!
If you’ve enjoyed seeing some of the photos here, I’m sharing an album of photos from the day on Facebook too.