Outdoors: Going loco in Loughborough

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The Independent Online
It's a boyhood dream come true - and more. You, too, can learn how to drive a steam train, writes

Mike Higgins.

The sight is wonderful: a mid-Forties large class 4-6-0 mixed traffic locomotive, gleaming black beneath the smoke that spills down its side. Steamed up and all set to pull away from Loughborough Central, Great Central Railway's beautifully restored turn-of-the-century station, the engine evokes a thrill more delicious even than the anticipation of riding on its footplate. Witherslack Hall, which waited for no one in its years of service on the express main line between Manchester and Marylebone, is waiting for me and my companions, Peter and Tom, to set her in motion.

Three boys and their toy perhaps, but the chairman of GCR, Graham Oliver, is keen to emphasise the importance of people getting up on to footplates and learning to drive steam engines: "You'll see a skill that is not learned overnight, skills that take years and years to develop, and we keep those skills alive." Not just a carefree dream of childhood, then, nor even the trickiest driving test you're likely to take.

In a world of fireboxes, vacuum brakes and 4,000-gallon water tenders, where "she"s are usually appreciated for their impressive tractive effort, Anthea Perry is responsible for the Drive a Train Experience. Around two- thirds of GCR's revenue is accounted for by day trippers, and by the railway's weekly first-class dining events, but it's the 800 people Anthea attracts to the Experience that bring in a third of the company's annual pounds 1.2m turnover.

Her obvious passion for the engines is an eloquent advertisement for the world of steam. "I've been under a loco with a heavy spanner," she grins. "I became interested in trains because my two big brothers used to take me trainspotting - and I joined the Great Central Railway five years ago as a volunteer. I even met my partner, a freelance locomotive engineer, when he used to work in the loco shed here."

So when she sits a client in front of a brief training video at the start of the trainees' day, Anthea not only knows how to drive, say, Witherslack Hall, but also how to keep her in good working order. A tour of the restored signalbox and the locomotive works follows, before the would-be driver mounts the footplate. Up there, the firebox roars and steam leaks from labyrinthine piping. "In the hands of the right people the machine comes alive and produces power," says Graham Oliver. "In the hands of the wrong people, it dies."

We have not had the benefit of the training video, but Mick and Bill obviously relish demystifying the intimidating bank of footplate fittings. The railway is delighted to cater for those for whom a nudge of the regulator and a blow of the whistle is not enough.

On the other hand, our driver and fireman quietly seem to enjoy some respite from eagle-eyed steam buffs and are happy for someone like me to indulge in a little romantic footplate tourism, shovel some coal and drift away to the Hall's rhythmic mechanical chorus (Bill maintains that she "sings" when she needs more water).

Via the restored Victorian station of Rothley and its own viaduct, the line sweeps over Swithland Reservoir with its wild birds, providing vistas of the estates through which the Quorn Hunt rides. And though Bill informs me that she'll do 80mph, the locomotive's imposed 25 mph speed limit gives everyone plenty of time to drink in the scene.

From the wrought-iron canopies to the Bronco paper in the toilets, Loughborough Central station, with its painstakingly restored stationmaster's office, ladies' waiting-room and ticket hall, recreates a period ambience that has provided a backdrop for films such as Shadowlands and The Secret Agent. For devotees of the Great Central Railway, however, the station, its locomotives and the cream and maroon ("blood and custard") coaches constitute more than a film set; a view summed up by Graham Oliver: "This nation developed railways and gave railways to the world. We became Great Britain on the back of steam, iron and coal and we imported these to 80 per cent of the civilised world. If you go back 50 years there was no one in this country whose life wasn't at the very least touched by the railways."

Meanwhile, the little boy in me is susceptible to an equally persuasive argument: "When people get off the engine, they're beaming," laughs Anthea Perry. "They look at their hands and their faces and they say, 'I'm never going to wash again.'"

The Drive A Train Experience

Bronze pounds 195: (Sat & Sun all year, weekdays May-Sept) you and another novice ride on the footplate of a scheduled passenger steam train before boarding a locomotive. You then take it in turns to drive the engine, without coaches, for a 16-mile round trip.

Silver pounds 350: (weekdays all year) as with the Bronze, but over 30 miles and with a full rake of coaches.

Gold pounds 1,250: (weekdays all year) you alone drive all day, over 64 miles, with a full rake of coaches.

Great Central Railway, Great Central Road, Loughborough, Leicestershire LE11 1RW (01509 230 726)

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