Wednesday, 20 June 2018

It was the Age of Steam ...... and it was the passing of steam

Now if you want an example of one of those great divides, the steam locomotive must be up there at the top of the tree.

Down in the West country and travelling to Minehead
For my generation who grew up with steam power, there is still a magic to it, undimmed by the simple observation that I last travelled on one back in the summer of 1961 on my way home from a holiday with my grandparents in Derby.

For others the love affair will have lingered longer into the 1960s, but we lived in south east London and the Southern Region of British Railways along with the Underground ran their trains on electricity.

I know my father had the same romantic attachment to steam but not so mother, and there I think comes that divide, for she had a particularly jaundiced view of the steam locomotive.

It was borne from that simple accident of living near a railway line, and watching as the mix of smoke and hot specs of cinder played havoc with the washing on the line. At best it left the sheets, shirts and underwear looking grubby before they had even dried, and at worst the cinders burnt small holes in the material.

The Steam Expo, 1980, Manchester
And so mother’s response to my lament at the passing of the Age of Steam was a brusque “good riddance”.

I, with no such considerations, mourned the passing of the lot from the great sleek and powerful express locomotives to the dirty, unwashed and business like “shunters”.

Part of that divide I suspect is also because mother’s generation took them for granted, while I was only in my early 20s when they effectively disappeared along with countless little branch lines.

All of this I was reminded on when my friend Lois posted a short account of the steam train journey on her blog.*

She began “Yesterday we had a belated Father's Day celebration and went by steam train (yes a puffing Billy) from the little town of Bishops Lydeard to the seaside town of Minehead” and went on to reflect on steam journeys with her family waxing lyrical about the sounds and smells.

Like Lois, I remember them vividly and in particular late at night the noise from the sidings close to Nana’s house. In the still of the early morning, the sound of the shunting engine working the wagons, carried across the streets with the dull clunk of carriages banging together and the occasional whistle, coupled with the unmistakable surging noise of a loco getting up steam.

Rolling out the steam, 1981, Steam Cavalcade
Today apart from the static exhibits in museums, the joy of steam has to be experienced at one of the local preservation societies, some of which sprang up even as British Railways were planning which new batch of old locos to scrap.

These societies, often at first on a wing and prayer saved our heritage and now run both nostalgic excursions but also commercial ones on branch lines that closed long ago.

But there are also those steam events, which feature not just locomotives but also host of steam powered vehicles from traction engines to merrygorounds.

I find them pure heaven but I suspect mother would not be convinced.

Location; where ever there is a steam locomotive

Pictures; the steam loco that takes you from Bishops Lydeard to the seaside town of Minehead, 2018, courtesy of Lois Elsden, and a fine steam loco from the Steam Expo, 1980, and Steam Cavalcade, 1981, Manchester, from the collection of Andrew Simpson

*An Old Sort of Journey, Lois Elsden,

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