It seems ridiculous to call a museum with a 200ft tower a ‘hidden gem’, yet the Museum of Water and Steam doesn’t have the widespread recognition it deserves. Set in the historic buildings of former Kew Bridge Waterworks, this museum tells the story of London and its water. If you don’t think this is an important topic, you’ve clearly never found your water supply switched off! And this is the perfect place to discover this watery tale – from 1838, this waterworks was the first to reliably get clean water to people’s homes, at an affordable price. But this is no dry, academic lesson – there are hands-on galleries, working steam engines, historic ‘monster’ engines, splash play and a miniature steam train, with a family trail to guide you through. Here’s our highlights of the Museum of Water and Steam.
Waterworks Interactive Gallery
The Waterworks Interactive Gallery is the first and largest of the displays, and gives a great overview of how London has got its water from the Roman times until today. A wall of historic household objects greets you as you descend into the space, from tin baths to toilets, showing how fundamental water is to our everyday lives. There is plenty in this gallery to keep active children happy from push button interactives to child-size pipes to clamber through. By far the Museum Kids’ favourite is the hands-on pump models. Both of them pumped energetically, seeing how each moves the water differently thanks to the clear perspex sides.
Three dolls houses captured their attention, each representing a different London house from the 1660s to today. Together they show how water use has changed – from leaky cesspits to the excessive overuse of water today. We loved seeing what the illustrated ‘dolls’ were doing in each house – from jumping on the beds, to emptying their chamberpots out the window! The danger of dirty water is explore with a section on cholera, and there’s a fake sewer to walk through too – look out for the robot rat, used to check, and even repair, sewer pipes.
Parts of the display are used to teach school children about water wastage, and whilst they feel a bit corporate in tone they are still hands-on and engaging. There are even free water saving devices to takeaway.
Once the boiler house for the 1838 Engine House, today the Steam Hall is home to engines collected from water pumping stations across the country. On the day of our visit, enthusiasts had the engines up and running. The noise, movement and steam certainly added to our visit, and the resulting heat would make it a pleasant stop on a cold day. At the dressing-up station, children can choose whether a water-carrying maid’s or steam driver’s outfit to wear.
Splash Zone in the Waterwheels Courtyard
The outdoor courtyard space kept the little ones playing for a lot longer than its relatively small space suggested. The highlight is the Splash Zone water play area, where you move water using pumps, levers, pipes, gears, wheels and more. I would recommend packing a spare outfit as the kids got really into this, resulting in wet sleeves all round! The three play stations are large enough to accommodate groups of children, and it was great to see our little ones working together to stem and redirect water flow.
I’m not sure if they are an actual playground, but Museum Girl loved disappearing into these sections of giant pipes.
There’s also a narrow-gauge railway, steam-powered train. Trains like this moved coal from London’s docks to its waterworks. Perfect for your little train enthusiast! You get free, unlimited rides with your entrance ticket – but check the website carefully before you visit, as it only runs on certain days. The map doesn’t make this clear so having bigged up the train ride, I had two slightly disappointed children – until the Splash Zone distracted them, that is!
Looming over the courtyard is the magnificent 200ft Victorian tower. It’s normally closed to the public – but the museum does put on occasional special tours, which are advertised on their social media channels and their newsletter.
The world’s largest engines
Museum Dad and I were blown away were the giant steam engines, once the world’s largest engines. Charles Dickens clearly felt the same awe, describing the 90″ engine as a ‘monster’. This powerful beast was needed to get water to the top floors of London homes. Increased demand led to the installation of its neighbour, the 100″ engine in 1871. These engines pushed water to Londoners for 100 years before diesel replaced steam power. In contrast to the other galleries this space had little text, letting these incredible relics of our industrial past speak for themselves.
If you have a head for heights, you can clamber up two floors of the historic staircase running alongside them. It is giddying – whilst Museum Boy got to the first floor, he decided to leave the second until he’s a rather arbitrary 12 years old! The height restriction of 1.2 metres should be adhered to as there are worryingly large gaps between the bannisters. Four year old Museum Girl howled with disappointment at being too short to go up. For those of you with smaller children, the discreet gate to the staircase doesn’t advertise its presence.
And did you know the 90″ engine is a pop legend? Well, sort of – it featured in the opening credits of Top of the Pops in the early 90s. Watch it for yourself here.
The 90″ engine is driven into steam on special days, and this is one spectacle I don’t want to miss!
Make sure you pick up Splash Cat’s Paw Print Trail from the front desk. There are ten paw print stations around the museum, which my kids loved searching for. The trail includes fun facts about the waterworks, its engines and the people who gave London its clean water. The trail is free, and they even handed over some pencils too!
More historic engines
If engines are your thing, you’ll be delighted to know this is the home to the world’s largest collection of Cornish engines – and the only working Bull engine in the world. The oldest engine on site, the Boulton and Watt, is nearly 200 years old.
Even if you’re not into engines, these historic machines will still impress you. I was struck by the quiet atmosphere of these engine rooms. The plain, painted brick walls have a tranquility almost at odds with how noisy and dirty these rooms must have been in their heydey. The museum puts many of these large historic engines into steam. On the day of our visit, a small group gathered around one, eager to see it working. The huge machine moved much more gracefully than I imagined, and with far less noise and fuss than a steam train.
The museum kindly offered us lunch at the museum’s Birdies Cafe. Our initial concerns about the limited menu proved ill-founded, as we all found something we liked. The cafe executed all of our meals really well. The children chose giant hot dogs, served in hunks of toasted brioche with freshly cooked chips. An imaginative salad of watermelon, tomato and broccoli accompanied my burger when I asked to skip the fries, and we’re sure my partner’s tasty lasagne was homemade. We enjoyed the meal so much I mainly have photographs of the kids scoffing it, which I thought I’d spare you! With leather sofas, play train sets and crates of books, it’s a very welcoming space for families. The cafe is right near the entrance so non-museum visitors can eat there too. Storytime takes place in the cafe twice a week.
The Museum of Water and Steam regularly run special family events. For May half term, it’s all about trains, trains, trains! Between Saturday 25 May 2019 and Sunday 2 June 2019, there are daily train rides, miniature steam trains, a train trail and story telling.
If you’re looking for a small, friendly museum with plenty of hands-on family activities, then the Museum of Water and Steam is definitely one to visit. And with an active programme of events, there’s always a reason to return – especially as it only costs an extra £4 to upgrade your entry ticket to an annual. We’ll be back again soon, I’m sure.
The Museum of Water and Steam is open Wednesday to Sundays, every bank holiday, and daily during local school holidays.
Adults £12.50, Children £5.50, Family ticket (1+2) £18 / (2+2) £20.50. Book online for 10% discount. And consider upgrading your ticket to an annual from £4.
For more information visit their website: https://waterandsteam.org.uk/
Disclosure: I received free entry to the Museum of Water and Steam and a free lunch at Birdies Cafe in return for an honest review. We visited the Museum in March 2019 with Museum Boy (6) and Museum Girl (4).
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