Steam trains in Yorkshire: Pull the levers of power (gently, mind)

After firing himself up at a steam engine school in a remote Yorkshire valley, Andrew Martin achieves an ambition. He's a train driver at last
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The Independent Travel

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway is the preserved steam line that conforms most closely to the rural branch line idyll depicted in stories such as The Railway Children or The Titfield Thunderbolt, and the northern terminus at Grosmont in the Esk valley is the prettiest of all the stops. When there are no trains in the station you hear only the sussuration of the Esk, or the occasional dinging of a bell in the signal box. It is strange to discover in this somnolent context such a gritty thing as a loco shed, but there is one, in a tree-lined siding beyond the station. Just outside the mouth of this shed is the Portakabin serving as the classroom for the "footplate awareness" courses the railway has run for the past two years.

It's a bit unsettling to enter this shed on a bright sunny morning. There are intimidating volumes on the bookshelves with titles like The Efficient Use of Steam and models to show the workings of bits of engines. When our instructor, a gangly, deeply capable-looking ex-BR driver called Keith Gays arrived, I felt the need to point out that I was not at all technically minded. Well, maybe I underestimated myself, or perhaps Keith Gays is just much more lucid than my old physics teacher, but within 10 minutes I was pretty clear on the basic workings of a steam engine – a subject on which I'd always been slightly evasive when asked by my two young sons.

On the first day of the course, we alternated between theoretical sessions in the Portakabin, and reality as exemplified by the various locos stabled in the shed – full of whistling, twinkly-eyed blokes. Note that I say "stabled" and not "parked". After a morning in the company of Keith Gays, I and the other three course attendees were beginning to get our vocabulary right. There's much equine language around engines, and they are often referred to as "she", although terminology quickly becomes less chivalrous where an engine is hard to operate. I asked how I should refer to one little tank engine and Keith just shrugged and said, "the green bastard".

That afternoon we lit the fire in the engine we would be driving the next day, a BR Class Four, compellingly named The Green Knight. I am disturbingly keen on lighting fires, and with a steam engine you have the chance to do it on a big scale: with lumps of coal as big as shoeboxes, spars of broken fences, and oily rags.

My first job the next day involved crawling underneath The Green Knight with an oil can. Steam train drivers always oiled their own engines, just as parachute jumpers pack their own parachutes. In the railway world, oiling is quite glamorous whereas greasing – done by fitters – is less so. You end up with the same mascaraed look after both, however.

Our first taste of driving and firing came after lunch, as we moved The Green Knight up and down the tracks around the shed. There were many revelations. One: the white intensity of the fire, which seems to threaten to pull you into the fire hole. Two: the difficulty, when in the fireman's role, of throwing right to the back of the firebox. We all came to dread Keith's request, uttered with casual cruelty and a slow smile not far off to "put a bit more on at the back". According to Keith it can take years to get the action right – "it's like finding your swing in golf".

The third revelation was the sensitivity of the controls. A couple of millimetres on the steam brake handle meant the difference between a controlled stop and locking the wheels. As we drove the engine, Keith stood behind us. If we tugged any lever too brutally, a slight peevishness would creep into his voice.

The start of the third day found me sitting in the driver's seat, the crossing gates of Grosmont swinging gracefully open as I prepared to pilot the train 18 miles to Pickering. It was like the curtain going up, and I had butterflies. Keith was standing at my shoulder, but none of the tourists looking on could quite see him. What they saw was me at the cab window putting on a "this is no big deal" look. But it was a big deal, especially after we'd negotiated the first few signals, and Keith suggested I sit back in the driver's seat and relax for a while: "Look out the window," he said, pointing to the sunlit hills. "All of this is free."

Later in the day I had my turn at firing along the route, in the course of which, during shunting at Pickering and Grosmont, I had to couple, and then uncouple the engine from the carriages. As I stood on the track, wrestling with vacuum pipes between the dangerous buffers, I felt I cut a heroic figure, like the man at the circus who puts his head in the lion's mouth. One tourist actually took a photograph of me as I did this, and for all I know he's handing it around now, saying to people: "This is how not to uncouple an engine." But I felt 10 feet tall all that day.

The facts

Getting there

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway runs between Grosmont and Pickering. There is a station at Grosmont, which is on the line between Whitby and Middlesbrough, off the A171 from Whitby to Guisbrough.

Being there

Footplate tuition on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway (01947 895888; email: nymr.training@unisonfree.net; www.nymr.demon.co.uk) costs from £99 for a one-day course to £855 for five days.

The nearby Eskdale guesthouse at Grosmont (01947 895385) offers b&b from £18.50 per person per night.

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