OK, I have two confessions. First, I admit I was excited. Second, I’d been wanting to do it since I was a kid. Oh, and third, this is probably a man thing, ladies.
Last week I got to drive a steam engine. A big, shiny, black steam engine. With coaches! For miles and miles! And blew its whistle (several times, you have to actually!). It was a small boy’s dream realised, if the small boyhood began sufficiently long ago.
My thoughtful little brothers, recognising the probable onset of my second childhood when I turned 70 last year, bought me a steam train driving experience. So off we went to the East Lancs Railway in Bury. There, kitted out in appropriate official overalls, and following a short instructive video, I was conducted to the august presence of the real driver and fireman of BR Standard 4, number 76084. Who welcomed me to the footplate, the very inner sanctum.
First impressions? A daunting array of pipes, wheels, valves, dials, glass thingies with water in them, and the yawning mouth of the firing door, emitting a shocking blast of raw heat. “Right”, said John the fireman, “You need to put some more water in!” “Er, right”, says I, no doubt in the tone of voice adopted by a caveman confronted by his first supercomputer.
But the tolerant John showed me how, and then shoved a very large shovel in my hand.
Behind me was this pile of huge chunks of the finest steam coal, and it soon proved that tidily transferring this the mere five or six feet from the tender to the firebox was (a) surprisingly challenging and (b) very hard work. John, who must be 5 foot 8 in his boots, could do this with complete nonchalance. The present writer fell short of John’s standards!
You learn a great deal about the engine, and what makes it go, in the fireman’s shoes. He must keep the water levels and the steam pressure just so, he must skilfully keep the coal in just the right places in the firebox, and he must constantly look out from the cab on ‘his’ side of the engine to check on signals ahead. And he must cultivate the arcane arts of being rude to the driver with exactly the right tone of voice and vocabulary.
So I got to do all that on the ‘Up” journey to Rawthenstall.
Then comes the moment, just when you realise that a mere lifetime cant be long enough to take it all in, when Dave the Engine Driver gets up from his chair, and it’s Your Turn. There’s a big wheel there, for engaging forward and reverse gear. There’s a big handle there, for regulating the steam. There’s a lever here, for the brake vacuum. There’s a big dial for your speed, another for your brakes, another for your teleportation to the next galaxy. You get the picture? But actually, Dave says, “Pull that regulator on Phil, and off we go”, and so we did.
I’m not even going to try and describe what that feels like. But at 30 miles an hour, in control of several hundred tons of engine and rolling stock, with the engine barking up a gradient, and the song of the (compulsory) whistle when you enter or leave a tunnel, this is an Experience!
It was a full day. We fired, we drove, we did a stint on Guard duties. Every member of the staff of the East Lancs Railway was charming, tolerant, enthusiastic and highly skilled. We did the train, we did the workshops (amazing), the Signal Box (daunting) and the lunch (!).
I took loads of photographs and guess what, there’s not a single one with me in it. So I just have the memory. But that’s the whole point isn’t it? And as a special bonus, I got to buy dinner for the Memsahib at the excellent Red Lion in Hawkshaw, where we overnighted.