Right, sorry for the slight blog hiatus, blame the day job for sucking dry all my creative juices and leaving me, a spent prune, without wit or wisdom to delight and entertain. I’m still prune-like but my conscience dictates that I pull my finger out and write something for my loyal reader. So pull up a chair and let me tell you about my vintage vibe weekend. Quite a long weekend as it happened but simply stunning in every facet.
It started on Thursday afternoon, as all the best weekends do. The first mate and I decided to warm up for the Braunston Historic Boat Rally by…er…driving a steam train. Now those who know my piratical persuasion may be thinking ‘Crikey, she’s upped her game, she’s twocking locos now’ but fear not, this was all legit. We were enjoying one of those Steam Train Driving Experiences offered by so many of our fantastic heritage railways, this particular one the gift of the delightful Mid Norfolk line…but it was no nursery slopes induction on a little tank engine for us, or a low-key outing with a Black Five. Oh no, start at the top, why don’t you? Cue lots of silly grins as we got down on the track and up close and personal with a Gresley A4 Pacific, the iconic streamlined beauty that is, in this particular case, the Union of South Africa, or No 9 as she is affectionately known (Her BR number was 60009). No 9 was the first ever steam train that Andy and I rode behind as a couple (in the cheap seats back then, sharing a bag of crisps on the way to York); so when I heard that a limited number of driver experiences were available during No 9’s visit to the MNR, I was straight in there and we were lucky enough to bag the 3pm Thursday slot.
It was a steamy love affair, I can tell you. We adored every hot, filthy second. In fact, even adored doesn’t seem a strong enough word to express the very visceral delight and thrill of our time in the buffet…er..I mean on the footplate. By his own admission, the first mate was a better driver than fireman. You’ll likely find quite a bit of coal both sides of the line, his slightly uncoordinated shoveling seeing a lot go out the sides, a lot on the floor, quite a bit on my feet and not very much in the firebox. Once seated in the driver’s seat and after overcoming his rather lusty pull on the regulator which opened things up rather too much and caused a very minor panic, he settled to his task very nicely. Even the coach stuck on the level crossing didn’t worry him particularly…
I found some fluidity when shoveling and also sackfuls of respect for the guys who do this part of the job. There is real skill and technique in building the fire and keeping it just right, not to mention the phenomenal stamina you need to keep shifting coal in that heat. Driving was also a real blast, and I never tired of tooting the whistle in my giddy state. It took me a little while to figure out what was strange about the experience though…you don’t steer. There we were, leaving Dereham station with me at the controls, slightly hysterical (in a good way), and my usual reference points were missing. No wheel, no tiller, nothing to turn at all….not touching or gently nudging and correcting a steering mechanism certainly felt alien to begin with, but I soon became accustomed to it and of course, by the end, I just wanted to do it again, and again, and again. We’ve already eyed up a course on the Great Central Railway that allows you to take out an engine AND coaches, which I suspect will add an extra degree of difficulty.
Something I don’t suspect but know for sure is that I’ll never see our steam train day trips in the same light again. The engine crew may enjoy their time on the footplate but it is a very long way from being a jolly. Our top speed on the MNR was 25mph and that felt scary in such a heavy loco, bouncing around as it did. Excursion speeds often hit 70-75mph and they are on a busy mainline and cab visibility is hopeless (no wonder the authorities have kittens about tresspassing)…there’s a lot to get wrong but for the most part they do get it right. A few years back we were lucky enough to ride on the Capital Streak, one of three trips where A4 Bittern had been sanctioned to run at 90mph. It felt smooth and easy in my generously squidgy Pullman seat as I set new records for Elizabeth Shaw mint consumption – in the cab it must have been pure rock ‘n’ roll.
It was pretty rock ‘n’ roll on the Saturday night at Braunston too, courtesy of the Shellac Massive’s 78s towpath party. Chertsey Jim and the first mate, aka DJ Fat Boy Fat, have been adding to Jim’s 78s collection ever since they bonded over beer, dogs and discs at Brownhills and had promised themselves a bit of a gramophone session during the rally. Chertsey Sarah had the excellent idea of making it a bit of a party and Renfrew Pete toddled along to join us, confessing on arrival that he too was a bit of a 78s man and having honorary Massive membership instantly conferred upon him. Straddling the towpath as we were, the party saw an enormous number of ‘guests’, some of whom lingered, but the majority obviously unwilling to be deflected from their fish and chip mission by the strains of the Savoy Orpheans and Kurt Weil. Philistines! In the intermission between DJ sets, we were entertained by the Finchers on their melodeons, with Cath somehow squeezing in a bit of tuition for yours truly while cooking up dinner. You can tell Cath was a teacher – patience of a saint!
It was a very pleasant, chilled end to an excellent day. The previous evening had been equally enjoyable, though totally different in tone and tenor. We’d sat outside the beer tent till late, catching up with old friends, making new ones, debating the merits of curry sauce on chips, steadily working our way through the extensive ales list; it was the excitable chat and latent anticipation that characterises the start of an event, whereas Saturday’s easy relaxation reflected an event that was delivering on all its promise. The parades had had just the right amount of chaos without being tedious, and Norman the Mic heralded me in memorable fashion, which I giggled at but will remember when I see him next, cheeky sod: “And here’s Enceladus, a small Northwich, and very nicely preserved…much like its steerer”.
I also had the chance at last to see the Alarum Theatre Company’s Idle Women production. Now let me tell you, there’s someone I could take a serious dislike to: Kate Saffin. Having spent the day with her crewing Tench a while back, I was already in awe of her ability to steer, lockwheel, make soup, bake bread, serve lunch, make biscuits and serve tea, all seemingly at the same time and without breaking a sweat. And now what do I find? She is also a quite brilliant writer and performer. The show was outstanding: no set, just Kate and a tea chest of props, but boy did she make it live. She is one uber-talented lady. Doesn’t it make you sick? Good job she’s so lovely otherwise one could really take against her…Only sorry that dog duty took me away from seeing Heather Wastie, who I understand was also rather fantastic.
All in all, it was a truly vintage vintage weekend. Still got the same dilemma as last year though…how do I wangle an extra bit of vintage in the shape of a full length unconverted motor? Promise Andy a hold full of 78s?
P.S While Emu deservedly won Best in Show (Andy has been given strict instructions to achieve the ‘Pinnock brass standard’ in future) special mention here for Lancing, newly and meticulously restored and having your correspondent drooling in a rather unseemly fashion.