Amidst the unexpected chaos that arises when you are given a last minute vital job, I haven't had time to report on my Christmas present from Ros, which I took up on Saturday.
Ros drove us to Castle Hedingham, in North Essex, in increasingly poor conditions, for my 'Steam Train Experience' on the Colne Valley Railway and, I have to admit that, as the rain beat down ever more insistently, I was rather nervous at the prospect of attempting to drive a large metal mechanical object, especially given my lack of experience driving anything.
Luckily, we weren't alone, and I left Ros to meet friends whilst I underwent my induction into driving a steam engine. The session started with a forty-five minute course, with PowerPoint presentation, on the history and mechanics of steam locomotives, with namechecks for Richard Trevithick and George Stephenson, and quite a lot of technical detail. I hung on as best I could and, by the end of it, I had a pretty good idea what to expect.
The three trainees, Jim, Jeff and myself, were then split up - Jim and Jeff to the steam engine, and me to the signalbox, where I was introduced to Harold, the signalman. The rain had stopped, and the sun was shining by now, and Harold explained how the signalling system works on their short, but perfectly formed length of working track.
After a few demonstrations, it was my turn to operate the various levers, and I was surprised at just how heavy they are. However, I managed to operate everything in the right order to avoid a train wreck, and the logical progression of signalling appeals to my inner bureaucrat.
Next, it was time to rotate trainees, and I donned my new, suspiciously clean, overalls for my first turn on the footplate of our steam locomotive, learning the role of the fireman. My instructor, Tim, was particularly good at flicking big lumps of anthracite into just the right spots in the firebox to ensure an even burn and maximise engine performance. It isn't simply about chucking vast amounts of coal in, and the art is about maintaining a relatively thin layer of coals whilst avoiding holes in the coverage.
Another thing that I learned is that the best position for a fireman to stand is facing at right-angles to the direction of travel. This minimises the amount of movement and maximises the amount that can be shovelled from the coalbox. But be careful, everything to your left is VERY hot, so try not to fall against it.
And finally, it was time to actually drive the locomotive. Malcolm, my instructor, showed me the six things to operate, the handbrake, the steam brake, the gearstick, the regulator, something else whose name escapes me, and, best of all, the whistle. It was at this point that my lack of driving experience presented an interesting challenge. You see, most drivers are used to a fast response when braking and, as a result, leave their braking too late. I expected the braking to be far slower than it actually is, and initially ended up stopping rather sooner than I had intended.
But I grew more confident as we ran up and down the track, hitting my braking points and enjoying the sound of a steam locomotive in motion. The sun shone, and I was able to wave at Ros as we travelled. It was hugely entertaining, and Ros tells me that I was beaming away as I sped past.
All too soon, it was over though. But as I took off my overalls and headed back to my beloved Ros, it was with a real sense of achievement and satisfaction. An excellent ploughman's followed (the buffet car at the Colne Valley Railway is rather good, and very reasonably priced if you're in the area), and all in all, I would describe it as a day that I won't forget in a hurry.
So, thanks to Ros for another amazing present, and to the Colne Valley Railway for providing such a great experience.