Sunday, 8 March 2015

I drove a steam train!

Mim in the cab of steam engine 'Spartan'
Better than a car.
Yesterday I had one of my best adventures yet when I got to drive a real steam train! For my birthday, Mr Robot bought me a replica steam train driver's outfit and paid for me to have a session driving a train at the Swindon and Cricklade Railway. We had to reschedule it as it clashed with his mum's funeral - something which, obviously, we hadn't planned for. However, the lovely people at the railway were able to move my driving day, and the weather yesterday was absolutely gorgeous, which was a bonus.


Swindon and Cricklade Railway is Wiltshire's only heritage railway, and is a little line run by dedicated volunteers. There are similar lines up and down the country, some with more track and some with less, but all alike in the way the people who care for the trains, stations and miles of track all do it for the love of it. I'm always awestruck by the dedication people put into things like this, working together to create something brilliant.

Swindon and Cricklade is an evolving line, and at present there is the main station, Blunsdon, and then a new station and engine shed at Hayes Knoll. Taw Valley Halt is their newest stop, and gives access to a country park. They do have plans to extend the line further, too. The volunteers are currently working on extending the track to Cricklade, which is a massive job.
Spartan steaming past signal box
Spartan steaming past the signal box at Hayes Knoll
We started off at Blunsdon, parking the car in the car park, then saying hello to the man in the crossing guard's hut, before crossing the track into the station. The cafe, housed in a converted railway carriage, wasn't open yesterday as it's early in the year, but that meant we got to have a cuppa in the volunteers' room, another converted railway carriage. I really liked that as we could chat to the volunteers about trains, and about the railway. (I am a dreadful spud with names and faces, and have forgotten everyone's name, so I apologise for that.) The station was beautiful, with gardens and trees, and bird feeders out the back, and the staff say in about a month's time it'll be absolutely gorgeous.
Hayes Knoll station, Swindon and Cricklade railway
Hayes Knoll station/engine shed
The engine I drove was Spartan, a fat little engine from Poland. Built in 1953, she'd been restored by the Spa Valley Railway in Kent, but was a bit too wide for that line and now runs at Swindon and Cricklade. (While Spartan was bought in, they also do a lot of restoration on site, and the big engine shed at Hayes Knoll houses several works-in-progress - plus a fat ginger cat who was wandering around 'supervising'.) I didn't have to do any coal-shovelling as there was a driver and a fireman in the cab with me at all times. It was fairly straightforward; there was a big lever to push up and down to make it go, and a smaller lever to pull towards me to make it slow down or stop completely. The trick was getting such a big, heavy vehicle to slow down in time to stop at the station.
Inside the cab of Swindon and Cricklade's engine Spartan
See that big lever? That makes the train puff forward.
There were two carriages attached to Spartan. While older carriages are among the current restoration projects, the ones currently in use are both British Railways Mk 1s - which I believe means they were built between 1951 and 1963. After I'd finished driving, a chap named Pete had a go, as he too was having a driving day, and we got to explore the carriages. My favourite was the one with a corridor down the side and little six-seater 'rooms. I'm sure I remember those from when I was a child! The other, named 'Laura', was a 'Standard Open'. It may have been a lower-class carriage in its day, but it's about a billion times nicer than the commuter carriages I travel in when I get the train to work nowadays.
British Rail Mk 1 Standard Open
Standard open carriage. Look at how much room there is!
While the engines inevitably get a lot of attention, and most people love a nostalgic ride in a heritage carriage, the thing that struck me on the day was how much hard work goes into the bits people probably don't think so much about: maintaining the track (I have enough trouble keeping my garden in order), cleaning the buildings, maintaining the cafe and toilets and so on. There's a lot of unglamorous labour that goes into looking after somewhere so lovely.
Moonraker dining cars, Swindon and Cricklade railway
I want to go back and have a cream tea on the Moonraker.
As you'd expect, volunteer-run charities like this have to find ways to raise money. At the Swindon and Cricklade Railway they run family-friendly seasonal specials - a ghost train for Halloween and Santa Specials at Christmas. They also have murder mystery evenings, a weekend featuring all sorts of other vintage steam machinery too, and cream teas on 'The Moonraker', a beautifully restored set of dining carriages. The Moonraker wasn't part of the train yesterday, but I'm jolly tempted to go back for bakes on a train at some point when it is running. I always list their events in my guide to What's On In Vintage Wiltshire if you too are interested in scones and steam. The other event I'm keen to go to is the Wartime Weekend. That's in September, and is, as far as I know, the last big 1940s event of the year in Wiltshire, as the ones in Lacock and Trowbridge happen early in the summer. It looks like being a fantastic day out.
Driver, Spartan, Swindon and Cricklade railway
Supervising my antics...
This day was a present from Mr Robot, and it was absolutely brilliant. If you've got a steam line near you, I recommend playing with trains as a great thing to do!
Me in cab of Spartan steam engine

29 comments :

  1. That does sound like fun! There's nothing like hearing a steam train whistle when you don't expect it (e.g. in Dorset, around Corfe Castle).

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    1. Ooh, that must be amazing to see! Corfe Castle is spectacular enough by itself.

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  2. Sounds like you had a fantastic day. I must confess I didn't even realise the line was there!

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    1. It's a very little line, but really nicely done, and the dedication of the volunteers is amazing.

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  3. Replies
    1. It was a complete surprise! I never expected anything like it.

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  4. A very belated Happy Birthday to you - what a fantastic pressie!

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    1. Thank you! It was a great day, and I hadn't expected it - I knew he'd planned something, but had suspected it was something burlesquey.

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  5. Fantastic! What a marvellous day you had- Happy Birthday x

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  6. Replies
    1. Hehehe, he does pick the best presents.

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  7. What a great gift! Both the station and the train are beautiful. I'm so glad you enjoyed your day, and you look so cool as an engine driver! xxx

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    1. It's a proper replica driver's outfit - you have to wear heavy cotton clothing as you're working beside the firebox, and Pete said it cost about the same to get a proper driver's outfit as it did to get industrial overalls, so he went with the vintage option.

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  8. What a wonderful present! You make the cutest engine driver ever! xxx

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    1. Thank you! He has the knack of buying great presents.

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  9. How utterly lovely, and check you out in your red lippy and overalls! This is such a lovely present, and I am glad you had a nice day for it. I'll have to check out those murder mystery evenings, I like the sound of those and Wiltshire's not too far from Wales. Do you now feel that if you were ever on a steam train and the driver was incapacitated, that you could take over and bring the train to safety?! x

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    1. Hehehe, I HAD to wear the red lippy! I left off most of my usual makeup as I thought if it was really hot I'd end up looking like Alice Cooper, but I wasn't forgoing lipstick.

      Hmm. I could probably *stop* a steam train, but I'd have to make sure everyone got off it and cleared the area as I've only got a vague idea how to depressure the boiler safely, and no idea how to put more water in. The driver reckoned if it exploded it'd leave a massive crater. Dangerous machines...

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  10. Wow, what a present! It looks like you had an amazing day. I must go and visit the line some time. My parents have been several times (my dad loves his trains!) and have really enjoyed it. Love the outfit, by the way!

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    1. I really fancy going to either the Wartime Weekend or the Ghost Train. I could always do both...

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  11. These words said it all: "Standard open carriage" - or, to the likes of me "Dream come true". :D
    I had my fair share of train rides (some of them pure nightmare - 14 hour ride for 500 kilometers in an unsanitary, overcrowded vagon)... but I never say "never again". There's a thing about train, the heart and joy that a bus-ride will never own. There's a sense of familiar faces and some of most magnificet meetings hapened to me while taking an overnight ride.
    ..
    You, darling look like you belong there (don't take this the wrong way - what I ment was, you Mr. Robot made a great choice of clothing for you)... and I myself would not mind being there.
    The mystery part sound divine.. makes me sad that I live so far away (geographicaly and in people's mentality) so I'm mising all ogmf the joy.

    Hug
    Marija

    P.S.
    So it was your B-day?! I haven't send you a card. :-(

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  12. Cool beans!
    The kid was reading over my shoulder and exclaimed, "That's no simulator, that's a real train!"
    Indeed.

    Glad you had a great time. We're all jealous here.

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  13. I can tell you one of the volunteers' names - it's Rebecca, and she's one of my student volunteers at the Cole Museum. She recently did a sponsored walk of the entire length of the track to raise money for the railway, and is taking her fireman's test soon. I mentioned that I thought you'd driven one of her trains, and she remembered seeing you in your hat and red lipstick. Small world!

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    1. I know the lady. She was great, I thought it was brilliant to see another woman driving trains. It's not just for Dads!

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  14. Love it! I've never been on a steam train but I would love a trip on one.

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    1. It's great hearing them chuff along. Though the beauty of riding on one is the old carriages, there's something so romantic about them. I do love the ones with the corridor down one side.

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  15. You look like you are having so much fun! It sounds great, such a good present. I love a steam train ride.

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    1. He does pick a good present. I need to come up with something for his birthday in May now...

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  16. How lovely! And a happy belated birthday to you xxx
    I do like a trip on a steam train, the Watercress Line is near us and we used to go to 40's events there. We saw the Bittern there one time.
    Andy's been upfront on a steam train a couple of times as we know someone who used to own a carriage on the Watercress Line and he often hires a train for the day and a few select people get a treat of going in the engine.

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