A couple of days ago I flew down to Gatwick to spend a day with my grandson Marco, along with his Mom and his Dad, my eldest son. Our few hours together was the stuff of legend; the same legend which has come to be expected from a family grown wider, of harmless laughter, of silly jokes and of watching a small boy’s wide eyes when introduced to that greatest of England’s inventions, the railway steam engine. I could, and indeed have maybe mentioned, my great happiness with the smaller members of my family; of the sheer wonder of being introduced to a ten-weeks premature scrap of humanity some five years ago, and of having my own worries brought down to earth by the response of a paediatric nurse who casually named my first grandson as ‘the noisy one in the corner’. Of the equally special happiness shared with my second son, who has presented me, care of course of Mom, with two more grandsons; both of whom have been introduced to the wonders of steam, along with the proud heritage of engineer-driven advances with which we fuelled the true Industrial Revolution which still changes our world even today.
Because it is the visit which we made to the privately-run, funded and operated Bluebelle Railway is that of which I write today. I cannot claim that it is a peculiarly-British trait to rescue and rebuild rusting steam locomotives, to spend literally millions on progressing the refurbishment of a branch-line closed long ago, and then to get thousands of people to pay for the privilege of sitting in a rail carriage which is drawn by one of the steam, smoke and noise-belching behemoths from our past, but we have over two hundred Rail Preservation societies all across this country of ours. The engineering and construction feats which faced this outfit would have daunted professionals, but they calmly made plans, raised money, sold shares in their Company, and moved over 80,000 tons of rubbish to get the trains running where they once rolled some sixty years ago.
The peculiar thrill of standing close up to a working steam engine, with its steam, water and smoke smells and noise, is one which lived with me from my first memories of travel after the War ended. To be favoured with a smile or a wave from these minor gods who bestrode the cabs of the locomotives was to know that you had been recognised as a true aficionado, and it is no lie when drivers and firemen said that once fired up, the railway engine was as ‘a living thing’. We as a nation still innovate, still experiment and invent, but the advances usually flow towards America, partly because we don’t seem to acknowledge that seed money without financial control is not welcomed by young entrepreneurs. But when it comes to men and women who dream of a time when ‘the railway’ meant a service which was prompt, reliable, efficient; employing machinery which maybe wasn’t ‘super-efficient’, wasn’t ‘ecologically friendly’ (whatever that is supposed to mean) but struck a spark of recognition within the engineer hidden within our hearts, we have them is spades!