Red engine, built in 2010, with its driver (built in 1942) on the Wells and Walsingham Line, Norfolk.
Forget the pinging. Time to get chuffing. Summer in England has arrived at last (though it may have departed by the time you read this) and Freedom Day is behind us, even if the endless pinging has imprisoned remarkable numbers of folk, from Prime Ministers to postal workers. (Hot tip: delete the app, silence the ping.)
So, readers, trapped in these United Kingdoms, what to do? Presuming you can find a place to rest your sun-kissed head for a couple of weeks, perhaps by the sea or by a lake or loch, your first target may be the beach. Get up early for sandy feet though; so many people have the same idea that most car parks are full by 11am. Maybe try the mountains in the morning, and the shore after four. Though be warned: the car park on Snowdon is reported to be full by 9am; the Lake District is full everywhere. By the seaside, the Cornish beach parks fill up early, and even the huge car park at Wells-Next-The-Sea, the most famous beach in Norfolk, is turning away family four-by-fours from 10.30am onwards.
If you can’t get on the beach, make for the hills, though see warning note on Snowdon above. Heading for anywhere vaguely famous, the same problem presents itself – no parking. Don’t dream of parking on the roads nearby to any mountain hotspot. Most of them are now enhanced by yellow lines, and the local police, relieved of the pleasures of stalking dog-walkers by drone and arresting non-mask wearers, will tow or clamp obstructing vehicles. And if you descend from Scafell Pike to the narrow lanes round the famous Lake District pub of the Old Dungeon Ghyll, where last you left your wheels, to find them gone, it is a long walk back to Windermere. A country house visit is a safer bet; you pay your money and you get a day’s parking, a decent tearoom, usually all-day admittance to the gardens, a stroll around ancient parkland, and a quick shuffle round the house and its treasures. Except, the gardens are baking hot, there’s a queue at the tearoom, the parkland is full of grumpy-looking cattle and biting insects, and the house is hot, stuffy, and overcrowded.
There must be somewhere else that will provide a joyful day. And there is. Scotland has only a couple, England is plentifully provided, and in Wales they are impossible to avoid. Steam railways. The very apogee of the nostalgia industry, but with (mostly) free parking, cafes and gift shops, and a chance to ride slowly through magnificent scenery with the wind blowing through your hair. Don’t take that too far though, sticking your head out of the window may increase the airflow but can often lead to smuts in the eyes – the steam engine at the front produces airborne ash and soot.
There are more than sixty operational steam railways in the UK and most of them are owned and operated by volunteers. The typical volunteer is male, over 60 years old and retired, may well have no professional connection with the railway industry, and works anything from a day to seven days a week on his chosen line. There are exceptions to this gross generalisation, of course. The bigger lines, such as the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, the Ffestiniog in north Wales, the Dart Valley Railway in Devon, employ a large number of professional staff, mostly in management and doing the jobs volunteers don’t care for – catering and cleaning. Drivers, guards, and station staff tend to be a mix of the paid and the unpaid, and one of the key skills of the professional general manager on these bigger operations is to get the waged and unwaged to work together in harmony – railway enthusiasts can be surprisingly cantankerous if not handled thoughtfully. Indeed, one of the reasons there are so many steam railways is due to fallings-out between the starry-eyed volunteers who set them up in the first place. The very first preserved line, the Talyllyn in north Wales, saw the first bust up as some of its early volunteers departed, chuffing loudly, to the nearby Ffestiniog. Both have survived and are highly successful operations.
But not all volunteers are ageing, dreamy-eyed males. There are plenty of female volunteers, and many lines now operate formal training schemes to attract young people – recognising they will need them to keep running in years to come. Currently, there seems to be no volunteer shortage, love of the sight of steam on a crisp autumn morning, the scents of hot oil and burning coal, and the delights of breakfast cooked on a shovel in a locomotive firebox being very far-reaching. A helpful factor is that there are some very rich steam enthusiasts – indeed many lines, like great country houses, seem to manage to find large infusions of cash from time to time. But even low-income rail fans will donate generously to the lines they love. Many railways found themselves in desperate straits when closed by Covid but most were rescued by funding donated by their admirers, some of whom must have been struggling themselves. Only two railways have gone broke and both are in the process of being rescued by enthusiasts.
What is maybe most remarkable, considering British Railways finally got rid of steam-powered haulage in August 1968, is how many steam engines there are around. The enthusiasts were early into the market, rich individuals buying steam engines from BR. David Shepherd, the wildlife artist, bought several in the 1960’s as his elephant paintings sold for high prices. Alan Pegler, who used money from his Yorkshire engineering company to help rescue the narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway in the early 1950’s, went on to bigger things by buying, restoring and operating 4472 Flying Scotsman. That did not work out so well; he ended up selling the family business and going personally bankrupt, working in his 80’s as a guest lecturer on cruise liners and living betwixt cruises in a council flat (but with the reward that every railway fan admires him for his chutzpah).
The Talyllyn was a bit different. Built and kitted out in 1866 as a narrow-gauge slate hauler from the lower slopes of Cader Idris to the sea, it kept on chuffing up and down its remote valley for 80 years. The railway reorganisation of 1923 overlooked it; so did nationalisation in 1947. The Board of Trade, responsible for passenger- carrying railways (a train a day, Tywyn to Abergynolwyn and back) forgot it existed. When the writer Tom Rolt came across it in 1949 it was down to two trains a week and was owned by local big-wig Sir Henry Haydn Jones who was three years older than his railway. What was more, it still had its original 1866 engines, carriages, and trucks, and had never bought any more. Sir Haydn liked Rolt, and when he died in 1950 he made arrangements to pass it to Rolt’s new preservation society. And so that ancient rolling stock still wanders up and down the valley, supplemented by more from nearby closed slate railways. Technically the line never closed, though in 1951 the Board of Trade suddenly realised that the Talyllyn was still operating, related in Rolt’s romantic and wonderful book about the whole rescue*.
Mainline engines – more than 300 – were pulled back out of Barry scrapyard in south Wales whence BR had dispatched them. In recent years several completely new mainline engines have been built, based on scrapped originals, most famously “Tornado”, to be seen on many a mainline excursion. On the narrow gauge the Ffestiniog has built two new engines and is on with a third, the Wells and Walsingham has two engines built locally in 1986 and 2010, and the Lynton and Barnstaple, closed in 1935, is not only rebuilding the whole line but also replicas of the engines scrapped at the time.
Which all sounds very solid. But there are a lot of problems on the horizon. Increasingly heavy regulation for one thing, adding to costs and irritating the volunteers. The age of the volunteer task force for another; the railways could not afford to pay for such labour (there were good reasons so many lines were closed sixty and seventy years ago). Pollution and global warming are yet another – burning coal is not popular with conservationists or indeed with residents living close to engine sheds. That may solve itself because the supply of steam coal in the UK is about to run out – in 2025 when the last pit will close. Permission to create a new one has just been turned down, and whilst Russian or Polish imports may keep things going a bit longer they won’t if present proposals to ban all burning of coal (also proposed for 2025) come to fruition.
So, if you are trapped in the UK for the summer use the time wisely. Ride behind a steam engine whilst you still can.
*LTC Rolt: Railway Adventure, widely available second-hand or from Abe Books UK