THE AGE OF STEAM

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

IMG_6193

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

 

I grew up beside the railway and the song of steam runs through my blood.

My paternal grandfather had been a railwaymen – I do not know of what precise ilk; he was also a union man and those activities appeared to predominate; and my father was in his young manhood a fireman and engine driver, and later in life a signalman. I was therefore familiar with the railway both inside and outside and from different points of view. I walked, alone, alongside the main Edinburgh/Glasgow line on my way to school from the age of 12, and crossed the main line at least twice a day. I was aware of the dangers – you walked, facing the oncoming train; you listened to the actual line – it would hum as a train approached, before you saw it; you checked each line before you crossed it. You crossed at a point where there was no steep embankment. Dangerous points were railway crossings (in those days often manned) and stations.

As a passenger, you did not travel in the first or rearmost carriage, as these were most susceptible to damage in a head-on collision or if the train was rammed from the rear. Trains could also be hit in the middle from faulty points but this was extremely rare.

Eugene and I knew the engines on the line. There were the despised little shunters, who slammed wagons about on the extra lines for maneouvering. There were neat little engines that pulled the local trains, where people went to work in Glasgow or Edinburgh and housewives went to these cities for a day shopping. There were powerful, heavy duty engines that hauled long goods trains – coal and fish were two of the regular ones; there was the speedy overnight mail train and finally there were the elite, glamorous and powerful engines that pulled the fast express trains from London to I think ultimately Aberdeen or Inverness. Every other train had to make way for them and to see them powering along with their plume of smoke and steam trailing out behind them was an absolutely magnificent sight. If one of these chariots of fire had a kindly engine driver who had time to notice two children watching his magnificent progression and blew his whistle in salute – this happened surprisingly often – why then our day was made.

There was a passenger bridge over the line quite near us and Eugene and I would stand on top of this and watch a steam engine come puffing towards us. We could see downwards through the iron grill of the bridge. Although Eugene braved standing and allowing the fiery, smoky engine to pass under him, I could never screw my courage to the sticking point, as it were, and always ran away at

the last minute.

There was excitement to be had as a passenger as well. There was the impressive entrance of the steam engine to the station, brakes screaming, as it snorted past you, hissing and clanking like a latter day dragon. The station-master (a very important and grandly uniformed fellow) would supervise the loading of an important train like the express to Glasgow when we went with our mother to visit her parents. The guard had a red flag and a whistle. You would hear the slamming of doors signalling the off, and then the whistle would blow and the train would either slip smoothly into departure, or judder off in a series of jerks, depending on the skill of the driver. You could hear the engine labouring to pull the train up hills and relaxing into long downhill runs. A lovely diddly-da rhythm would emerge. There was the terrifying prospect of negotiating the swaying loosely joined ends of carriages on the way to the dining car or toilet.

Our children kindly gave us a gift of a day’s excursion on the restored steam train, The Flying Scotsman, which we very much enjoyed and which brought back all these memories. We had a very nice day; everyone was very friendly; we were plied with champagne, food, smiles; but of course the age of steam has passed and so it was not quite the same as remembered. The Flying Scotsman was the route from London to the North; it was not the name of any engine.

In the days that I recall, people were going about their ordinary business. This train was full of ‘enthusiasts’. A perfectly pleasant man opposite us, using the route plan which showed about 40 points the train would pass and the estimated time, noted down the exact time – to the second – when the train actually passed each of those 40 points. A morbidly clever child of about ten knew everything there was to be known and as his nasal and smug whine droned on and on unchecked by his adoring parents I found myself harbouring ill-natured thoughts on the status of children in 2lst century society.

I was now the kind adult on the train who waved to children – and indeed to ‘enthusiasts’ – who watched from the side of the track, including to my own grandson, Ewan and Sarah his mother who had come to one of the London stations to see us pass.

Once in Scotland, when the age of steam had long since departed, we were driving through Fife with our three children when I heard the unmistakable sound of a steam engine’s chug and its whistle. At first my brain just recorded this sound, but then it jogged me excitedly. “That’s a STEAM engine! Wake up! DO something!” I did what I usually do in these circumstances: I told Mr Fix It, who drives through life beside me. Mr Fix It, who wasn’t called Grandpa Doing by his eldest granddaughter for no reason, raced the train through Fife (no mean feat) and brought us to a viewing point where we observed this conservation train power down the approach to, and then onto, the Forth Railway Bridge. And so, even though the age of steam is over, were I in Fife (or anywhere) and heard this sound again, would we still race to see the train? You bet we would.

Advertisements