Lesley, passionate about children’s literacy, dreamed of transforming a train into a library. Then she actually did it.
Three years ago Lesley Smith, school secretary of Kirk Merrington Primary School in Durham, was frustrated. The school had become so short on space that they had turned the library into an extra classroom, and books were being kept in the corridors. Lesley, a fierce advocate for children’s literacy, hit on her big idea. Train carriages. For an area of the country steeped in railway history, and with enough room on the school grounds to accommodate, it was the perfect solution.
Lesley was utterly tenacious, determined to see her vision through. After a few false starts, she was able to secure two train carriages through the help of a school governor. A meeting with ISG senior project manager Adam Ryan netted Lesley more than the digger she was looking to borrow – she got a partner. Adam made sure that the project was professionally overseen, with social and sustainability values embedded throughout.
Today the pupils are enjoying the two dazzlingly refurbished train carriages. One is a library, bursting with colour, excitement, and children’s literature. The other is a nurturing and sensory wellbeing hub. The train carriages sit proudly on a stretch of rail track elevated by a wildflower and grass bank, visible to all who drive past.
Lesley says: “The amount I’ve learned during this process! Looking back, I’m amazed at my own nerve. I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve had to teach myself how to apply for grant funding, I never thought I’d be doing that.” She called her project ‘Dare to Dream’ – not in reference to her dream of the train, but as a message to the children she wants to encourage. The train stands as a monument to captured imagination, and Lesley seeks to encourage the same passion in children.
The story of how Lesley achieved her vision is long; it involves many people, unbelievable coincidences, and her own refusal to be deterred. A goliath effort.
It all started because the school ran out of space. Built ten years ago for 100 children, they now have 157. They had to convert their library into an extra classroom and were keeping books in the corridors. The school also had no space for children with additional needs. One day, Lesley hit on an idea. A train. Lesley says: “It was only fitting that it should be a train to give a visual to the children not only about the size of the train carriages but also how railway engineering started with George Stephenson. The train can create links into the national curriculum.” Headteacher Nicola Murray agreed. A school governor who works for Network Rail pointed Lesley in the direction of a competition for disused trains being run by the BBC’s The One Show. While the school was shortlisted, they were ultimately not selected. This process alone had taken 18 months, and Lesley wasn’t sure of the way forward. Then – surprising, spectacular news. The school governor had managed to find two train carriages for the school. The school paid for the carriages and their transportation, while Network Rail provided the train tracks and buffer stops as a donation to the project. The question now changed from ‘what if?’ to ‘how?’.
Most of us, probably, would have no idea what goes into turning a train into a library and wellbeing hub. What needs to be stripped out, what needs to be added in, health and safety considerations to be met, how to weather-proof, heat, decorate, ensure that the space is both resilient to and safe for boisterous children – the list is endless, and most people likely wouldn’t know where to start. The thing is, neither did Lesley. She just got on with it all the same, figuring that her first objective was to clear the ground on the school field for the impending trains.
“I just knocked on the door and asked for a digger!” Lesley, nowadays a firm believer in “don’t ask, don’t get”, refused to be daunted by the scale or improbability of her vision. When she knew she needed building equipment, she chanced her arm and “rocked up” to a nearby ISG building site. Lesley says: “The Health and Safety manager asked me ‘who do you need to speak to?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know’. He said, ‘You might want the senior project manager’ and I thought, ‘yep, that sounds like exactly who I need”. That senior project manager was Adam Ryan, and the rest is history. In the following three years, Adam and Lesley formed a tight bond and worked together closely. Adam walked Lesley through creating a ‘shopping list’ and a plan of action. First up was getting the train carriages into the school grounds. Baffled locals came out to watch the train carriages be secured on the back of a low loader, driven down the country lane and reversed through the school gates. They were then rolled onto the train tracks with precision and ease, whilst the children looked on with excitement. Once in situ Adam and Lesley worked tirelessly to bring other project partners on board, and to refurbish the carriages completely. Adam contacted architect Peter Swift through social media and tasked him with designing the inside of the train.
Adam says: “I couldn’t just help out one week and leave it there. Lesley had pulled me in, and I was hooked. I had to see it through.” For the last three years, Adam’s had a routine. Every once in a while, he would drive over to the school by way of Starbucks - picking up coffee for himself, Lesley, and Nicola. Heads together, they would work on their collective passion project. They encouraged each other, navigating setbacks and raising each other’s spirits through frustrating waiting periods. They wanted to move ahead at full speed, without cutting any corners. Word of the project spread throughout the local community – in the end, Lesley says, people were approaching her to offer help.
Which is not to say that any of it was easy. It took an extraordinary amount of leg work on Lesley’s part. Money was always tight, even with the amount of help they had, and the project started with zero budget. Funding came from such sources as Spennymoor Area Action Partnership, Tesco, the National Lottery and Lesley herself selling cookies at the school for 50p each. (Over three years, she says this netted three thousand pounds). Climate Action North created a fund raising page to procure solar panels for the train. The school set up a GoFundMe page to raise funds. The project was derailed by COVID-19; timescales and plans had to be thrown out as the world stood still. All of a sudden there was a lack of materials and workforce to complete specific roles. Accessibility on the trains was also a huge consideration. Ramp access was a must, to make sure the project was compliant with the Disability Act and fit for all of the school’s current and future pupils.
The ‘Dare to Dream’ train officially opened on 22 March 2023. Among those in attendance for the launch were the school’s staff, pupils, parents, governors, and press. Representatives from the numerous companies who aided the project also came to celebrate, proudly taking time out of their working days to mark the occasion. A special guest appearance was made by celebrated children’s author Anne Fine. Ecstatic Year Fours at Kirk Merrington, currently studying Anne Fine as their class author, were overjoyed to see her cutting the ribbon. Anne remarked about the train: “This is so incredible. I’ll have to take pictures, or I just won’t believe it tomorrow. How lucky you all are.” In their determination to benefit every child, the school is planning to invite recent leavers (those who saw the train on the grounds but weren’t able to use it) back to see the finished result.
For Lesley, it all comes back to that one crucial thing – children’s literacy. When talking about the school’s previous lack of library, Lesley says: “It just wasn’t good enough. A library isn’t just a place to grab a book, it’s somewhere to sit and relax. Enjoy.” Tearing up at the launch, she added: “Just think, the scientist who cures cancer could be a student at this school. But they’re not going to grow up and do that without access to books, are they? I want all the children to achieve as much as they can and be able to look back at this school, and this train, and think that we helped.” That thought carried Lesley through doubts, setbacks, and untold hours of her own time. “I was always thinking - the train, the train, the train.”
When asked at the launch event, the children of Kirk Merrington were absolutely over the moon about their school’s new fixture. Lily, 10, says: “We’re so lucky, this is once in a lifetime. We were all like - when’s it coming? When’s it coming? We couldn’t wait.” Isla, 11, adds: “Some people might think reading is boring, but this totally proves that wrong.” When asked, the children’s favourite writers are mostly charmingly familiar. Roald Dahl, Anne Fine, Michael Morpurgo, Enid Blyton – and David Walliams. Thomas, nine, says that the space the train sits on was “definitely worth giving up. We used it for football, but we have another football pitch in the back anyway. This is way better.” Thomas also loves the “big dinosaur toy, the sand pit, the slime, and the dressing up rail.” Lesley (or Mrs Smith, to them) says: “I assumed that only the younger children would want the dressing up rail, but they all went straight for it!” Lesley also went above and beyond to ensure the library met the needs of all the pupils, which included laboriously sourcing properly bound books in braille. Lesley says: “I didn’t want some printed sheets of A4 with a ring-binder. I wanted books. Every child deserves books.”
If all that weren’t impressive enough - the train is even solar powered and self-sufficient. No stone was left unturned in the train’s transformation, and no book will go unread in its completion. Lesley says: “When I retire, I’ll drive past and think ‘yeah, I actually did that.’”