Memories are made of this.
It was all very Brief Encounter. Clouds of steam on a quaint platform. A whistle. A chug of the wheels and a prolonged hiss, as train 31806 came to a halt. I should have been wearing gloves and a hat. I was transported back to a time when travel was slow, genteel and convivial; shared flasks of hot tea, pork pies wrapped in greaseproof paper, and freshly cut sandwiches. An age when gentlemen wore freshly pressed trousers with razor sharp creases, and held the door open for what they considered to be the fair sex. An age of lipstick and powder compacts, seamed stockings and romance. I am an incurable romantic.
My great granddad was a steam engine driver. If I could talk to him now, I’m sure his memories would not tally with my imaginings.
He started at the age of twenty as an engine cleaner. Hard, dirty work. He needed to illuminate the firebox with a lit paraffin rag to remove lumps of unburned coal and wash the ash from the ash pan under the locomotive – a job that would have taken around three and a half hours. After engine cleaner he became engine stoker – more oily, sweaty, sooty work – responsible for the fire – for giving the engine driver steam and speed.
And finally he became an engine driver. Or maybe an engine man as I once heard it described. Without a watch or speedometer he needed to ‘feel’ the train, to talk to it, to listen to it. He would’ve known about weather, the affect of wind and rain, and been acutely aware of the track – the lay of it, the condition of it, which sections allowed speed, which needed care and attention. At night, without the aid of headlights, and with a blinding fire close by, he would have driven ‘by ear’, listening to the sound of passing trees, walls, water to gauge where he was.
For a small boy, having an engine driver grandpa was a wonderful thing. My mum’s cousin reminisced about visiting his granddad, the engine driver. ‘We used to live near the goods yard and I’d go down there on Saturday mornings and ask granddad if he had any jobs for me. I’d polish the brass on the engines, and sit and listen to the drivers. Sometimes granddad would let me ‘drive’ the train on the turntable. I’d keep the steam level going while he had a cup of tea. It took 6 shovels of coal to keep the gauge on the dial in the right place. I sometimes made tea for everyone in the cab, and they used to eat breakfast. The shovel was so shiny from all the coal. The stoker would take a cotton waste out of his back pocket and wipe it, and you’d put an egg and bacon on it, pop it into the fire for a couple of minutes, slap it between some bread. It was called an egg banjo – you didn’t want the egg runny or you’d waste it – you didn’t want to play it as it dribbled down your chin!