Forty years ago today Britain said goodbye to steam on its railways, or so it thought. Jubilee Class 5690 Leander at Ulverston 9th Aug 2008As part of the modernisation of the railway network in the 1960s, August 1968 was to mark the end of steam haulage and with it close the chapter on 139 years of history. When the rail network was nationalised in 1948 the newly formed British Railways inherited 20,102 steam locomotives. Phased withdrawal took place as locomotives got to the end of their natural working life and many were cut up at works that had once built them, but it is estimated that over 7,000 were liquidated in private scrapyards between 1958 and 1969. That equates to around two million tons of metal, most of which found its way to UK furnaces. However a large quantity was shipped to Japan possibly to later return as Nissan and Honda cars! The final locomotives to succumb to the cutter’s torch were three LMS “Black Fives” at Draper’s Yard in Hull. Apart from around 270 or so that survived into preservation, Dai Woodham’s Yard in Barry assisting the majority of escapees (213), the entire steam fleet of 16,000 locomotives had been eliminated in a little over ten years. The world of railways had not witnessed a cull like that before nor has it since. (*)

While steam was meant to die 40 years ago it is still going strong on heritage lines all over the country. Furthermore the privatisation of the network has allowed popular “steam special” charter trips over the mainlines. One group of enthusiasts have raised £2 million to build a LNER A1 locomotive from scratch. From the same stable as the famous Flying Scotsman A3 locomotive, and the A4 Mallard, no examples of the A1 Peppercorn class survived into preservation. LNER A4 Class 60007 Sir Nigel Gresley, Grosmont NYMR December 2007Very soon Tornado will roll out of the works and be seen on the mainlines, a tribute to the determination and hard work of a set of enthusiasts, and engineering skills that Britain thought it had long lost. So why does steam still enjoy great popularity and produce such sentimentality? Is it just nostalgia, or is there more to it than that? Surely in these days of global warming and climate change the burning of large quantities of fossil fuels is not something to be encouraged? One could argue there’s no place for sentimentality and when the final fires died down in August 1968 that should have marked the end of steam for good.

However I find myself in a muddle of contradictions. My environmentalist credentials come under close scrutiny when it comes to steam. I should tut, shake my head in disgust, point out the damage it does, toe the Friends of the Earth party line and be wholly opposed to it. But I’m not. I can’t help it, I admit it, I love steam. The smell, the sound, even the filth, bits of soot in my hair. While I accept that it is not desirable or practical to have maintained 16,000 locomotives in daily use, and I accept the withdrawal of steam traction was necessary, I am not going to wage war against 200 odd preserved examples especially when less than half will be in steam at any one point in time. Many are still in scrapyard condition awaiting the funds to restore them to working condition. 48173 - a forlorn but saved LMS Class 8F, Cheddleton February 2008Their contribution to CO2 emissions and global warming are not going to come anywhere close to the efforts of Britain’s millions of cars. Steam locomotives give a tangible link to the past, they are a living piece of history; in a time when we hardly manufacture anything in this country, they herald engineering feats we were once rightfully proud of. Steam locomotives help demonstrate tasks and duties now alien to us, highly labour intensive they once provided thousands of jobs. Unlike their replacements which could go at the press of a starter button, steam locomotives could take several hours to raise steam, and fires were keep going throughout the night to enable them to be ready for duty at any given time. Boilers need water, levels must be watched, steam pressure has to be kept in check, and fires must not be allowed to die. That’s a lot of care and attention. (Even the shed at Stoke had 90 steam locomotives in the early 1960s). No wonder they have been likened to living beasts with their own personalities. I once watched Union of South Africa (another LNER A4 class like the famous record breaking Mallard) being “put to bed” in sidings at York Railway Museum after a rail tour. The fireman was dropping the fire, essentially removing the still glowing embers of the firebox into a small skip on wheels. The locomotive sighed “haaarrrrh” rhythmically every few seconds, sounding like a very relaxed Darth Vader, giving the impression it was actually breathing.

Nostalgia plays a part in my story, and maybe a few genes! Both my father and grandfather worked on the railways. As a child we had no car and used the free passes British Rail staff received to travel by train to all our holiday destinations. There was no going abroad in those days. My earliest happiest memories include making sandcastles on the beach at Goodrington Sands in South Devon watching immaculate steam trains on the Paignton and Dartmouth heritage railway work hard along the embankment alongside the sands, climbing the steep bank to Churston. I was hooked and it started a lifetime of fascination with steam. Roll forward thirty years and by chance I recently became an active enthusiast myself. On one of my many stays in Coniston in the Lake District I learned of a small preserved railway in the grounds of a local house. I went to investigate and was stunned to find an extensive 7¼ inch gauge railway complete with working signals, signal boxes, and steam locomotives. It has been the life work of the owner, an elderly retired Major. So I donned my overalls and have since attended several maintenance and running days, becoming part of the small band of volunteers who give rides to locals in the know. I still pinch myself when I think I have learnt to raise steam, fire, and drive a real steam locomotive. It maybe a fraction of the size of its mainline counterparts, but all the principles and controls are the same. You cannot afford to take your eyes of it, the safety valves lift at 100 psi, and if the boiler runs dry there will be a large and devastating bang! “My” locomotive Holywath came to Coniston in January 1954, but had done twenty years service on Cleethorpes Pier before that. She’s a delicate old lass and needs treating with great care.

5690 Leander south of Ulverston 9th Aug 2008I was in Coniston this weekend for a maintenance day. The routine usually is a walk on Saturday, stay over at my favourite B&B, a 17th Century farmhouse, and then a day of graft on the railway turning my hand to whatever needs fixing. But this Saturday the weather was vile, heavy rain made walking unappealing, so I broke my journey at Carnforth hoping to visit “Steamtown” and see the exhibits in the old MPD (Motive Power Depot) or engine shed to you and me. Carnforth was one of the final three sheds housing the last 88 steam locomotives operating in August 1968, so a fitting place to visit on the anniversary. I’d been as a kid so felt the need to wallow in more nostalgia. Shame it was shut! Has been for ages, only opening for special gala events. However I did learn that a regular steam special from Carnforth to Ravenglass in the western Lake District was under way and if I hurried I might catch a glimpse of it. My timing was perfect, snapping Leander (a LMS Jubilee class) arriving at Ulverston station, and it waited there long enough for me to hurtle down some country lanes to find a good spot on a bridge for photographs. 154 Holywath under repair 10th August 2008154 HolywathMy duties this weekend included cleaning soot out of the tubes and smokeboxes, back-breaking stuff even at the smaller scale. We also made repairs to Holywath, so I had the added bonus of taking her up the line for a test run. Living proof that steam goes on, and still has many admirers forty years after its supposed demise.

(*) Figures from “A passion for steam” by Patrick Whitehouse & David St John Thomas

After much faffing about, gnashing of teeth, expletives, and going around in circles through stylesheets and MySQL databases, I’ve got this thing looking pretty much how I want it. It’s now as good as ready for the grand fanfare and launch to the unsuspecting world. I wanted it ready before my trip to the USA this coming weekend and it should be. I just need a few more photos in the general gallery. (Incidentally the concept of offering some of my best photos for sale is still a little way off).

But life has not been revolving completely around this site. I spent the Bank Holiday weekend trying to walk in Exmoor and Dartmoor with my friend Jen, but while the company was good the weather was far from it. Mist ruined the views from Dunnery Beacon although the walk through pastures and woodland was pleasant all the same. The next day the expedition over Dartmoor lasted about 30 minutes after a drenching, being blown about Hayter Rocks, and not being able to see beyond 50 feet in front of us. Thankfully dropping down to lower ground we salvaged something of the day with a walk at Budleigh Salterton on the coast, circling the River Otter estuary and briefly visiting the cliffs.

On Saturday I joined a group of 15 walkers and tackled Robinson, Hindscarth, Dale Head and Fleetwith Pike in the Lake District. There were incredible views of Buttermere and Crummock Water, being blessed with a warm sunny clear day. Buttermere from Fleetwith Pike 31st May 2008 After the 11 miles walk and over 4,000 feet of total ascent I was glad I was staying overnight at Coniston again and not facing the drive back to Leeds. I’ll leave you with a photo of Buttermere taken from the summit of Fleetwith Pike (648 metres or 2126 feet if you prefer!) Shame darker clouds were beginning to loom just at one of the most impressive spots. :-(

I was lazy this Saturday and instead of getting up early and heading for the Lake District to do a lengthy walk as planned, I didn’t leave Leeds until midday and ended up watching the FA Cup Final in a pub at Braithwaite near Keswick! So when I got to Coniston, my base for the night, I decided I’d do something worthwhile with the evening and set off on a stroll. I set out towards the top of the village heading for the Coniston Fells that form a dramatic backdrop to the location. The path I hoped to find was mainly level with a few minor undulations, but there was the option of a slight detour along a trail that branched off and climbed steeply up the fell side. When a small cairn of stones appeared to signal the start I took it and fought my way up through some gorse and over a fairly eroded route towards a rocky outcrop known as Long Crag. Once at about the 200m contour I decided enough was enough and settled down for a breather to enjoy the view. This is it below…

Long Crag view of Coniston

It was incredibly peaceful up there away from any human interaction. All I could hear was the sound of the distant rushing water of Church Beck, ewes with their lambs bleating in the pastures below, and out towards the direction of Tarn Hows the call of a solitary cuckoo. I soaked up the view of Coniston Water for 10 minutes watching the steam gondola make its ultimate trip of the day. Finally forcing myself up from my rocky perch, and I headed back down to rejoin the main path as I had about another three miles to complete before dark.

The lower path soon entered a wood carpeted with bluebells. The light wasn’t the best for photography but I attempted a few shots largely in vain but here’s one of the better ones…

Bluebell wood Coniston

The stroll through the wood was beautiful, I had it to myself or so I thought until a jogger came from behind me and half scared me to death! Now a bit jumpy I was startled again by rustling in the undergrowth about five minutes later, but this time it turned out to be a small deer. I froze quickly enough not to scare the doe completely and for a couple of minutes she kept a wary distance but allowed me to watch in delight. The trees prevented a good clear photo, and my attempts to slowly creep nearer to get a better view tested the doe’s patience and she was away.

Once out of the wood my route doubled back along the Cumbrian Way through fields of black lambs and on the descent into the village I passed three or four rabbits which fled as I tried to get a better vantage point to snap Coniston Water from the wrong side of a dry stone wall. I got back to the B&B farmhouse at 9:30pm still in the fading evening light. It was then that it struck me it was actually Saturday night and most people across Britain would be out now sinking a few lagers around their favourite boozers. I’m probably in a very small minority but they are welcome to it. I enjoyed my alternative Saturday night entertainment and feel better for doing it. I wonder how many of the drinking classes would say that the next day when nursing hangovers and trying to piece together scant memories of the night before?!

This has been a relaxed yet productive weekend. Much of it has been spent catching up on the chores neglected during the previous whirlwind weeks of gallivanting around the world. My house is now tidy again, my hedge is trim, the car is clean and the large mountain of clothes are put away. While I sat in the sun today with Orlando the cat uncharacteristically curled up nearby, I finally produced an updated CV on the laptop. I’ve been meaning to do this for weeks as it’s all part of a cunning plan, but I’ve lacked the time and inclination to do it thanks to more entertaining diversions. This was the first weekend at home for ages and I think justifies my staying in and doing nothing special. After all recent past weekends have seen me:

* walking in Scotland and discovering my football club was now Premier League!
* drinking, watching football, and meeting a former Dutch Stoke City manager in Brussels
* having a stay in Coniston in the Lake District
* in Florida for 17 days with the beloved
* having my parents to visit and making trips to York and Richmond

This weekend is a calm before the storm. I’m away again in Coniston next weekend, spending the Bank Holiday weekend staying in Exeter with my friend Jen walking somewhere in Devon, then after that I’m away across the Pond enjoying the company of “mar lady” as they say in Stoke. Hopefully this blog will help chronicle the adventures and save me the trouble of writing it up in the old fashioned way, something I attempted in Florida previously but ground to a sorry halt after starting gamely.

Thankfully I also got my hair chopped off this weekend, the mini-heatwave we’ve been enjoying recently has had me sweating bricks and the removal of the thick mop has helped considerably. I look respectable again and hopefully will not incur suspicious glances from the US Immigration Control when I return in June. I’ve spend a fair amount of the weekend faffing around with this website and blog settings, struggling to install the Gallery2 program which has seen me up into the early hours cursing and scratching my head. Simple installation my arse. It’s riddled with errors and meaningless messages. It better be worth it when I finally get the swine working. I found a nice simple gallery program that works beautifully but will not allow the functionality I need if I’m to advertise my wares as is the plan. Well one of the plans, but not the cunning plan. More of that another time.

Finally this weekend saw the arrival in the post of “It cracks like breaking skin”, a collection of short stories set in Stoke-on-Trent written and sent to me by fellow Stoke City fan and member of the Brussels Nine, Stephen Foster. Another book to add to the growing backlog of reading but a welcome addition, I’d been after it for some time. Nice then to get a signed copy. Worthy of online thanks and a link to Stephen’s blog