‘A living capsule of an era when time was far less of the essence’

IN TIME for the Easter break, reporter Kirsten Rawlins visited Buckinghamshire Railway Centre at Quainton to take a closer look at the family attraction.

AS I was born one of two girls, my father has always attempted to share with me his passion for engines and locomotives – with, unsurprisingly, very little success.

Reporter Kirsten Rawlins learns how to drive a steam train at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre at Quainton

Reporter Kirsten Rawlins learns how to drive a steam train at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre at Quainton

I was therefore less than enthused by the prospect of learning how to drive a steam train at Buckinghamshire Railway Centre when the suggestion was put to me by my editor.

But having been handed the task, I reluctantly agreed, and found myself braving the frost at the crack of dawn, heading down to Quainton to embark on a day of trains and coal. I wasn’t exactly overjoyed, to say the least.

But upon my arrival, I received a warm welcome from fireman Paul Donovan and driver Bob Randall, both of whom were to be showing me the ropes for the day.

I quickly got down to interviewing the pair as soon as I got indoors, desperate to make an attempt at both warming up and waking up, only to be stopped and handed a cup of tea by Bob.

“Before we do anything, we always have to start the day on a belly of tea,” he said.

“It’s a little known fact that steam engines are in fact run on tea.”

This was a welcomed essential on my part, to say the least – and a general indication of the way things work at the centre. Everyone is jovial and relaxed, each of them there on a voluntary basis working on the centre’s engines.

Next, after donning a delightful pair of men’s overalls, I was led to the locomotive I was to be working on for the day – Millom, a 1946-built saddle tank engine.

I then worked with Paul shovelling coal and wood into the firebox and, as we waited for the engine to heat up from the fire, I watched as Bob oiled the joints beneath the engine as he described to me some of the wonderfully unique locomotives possessed by the centre, and the stories behind their salvage and preservation.

It was at this point that I begun to understand why people would willingly drag themselves out of bed to voluntarily get their hands dirty working on old machines which travel more or less no where at all, at meagre speeds by modern standards.

These beastly machines are in fact fully functional historical artefacts, reminiscent of an era when people did not have the luxury of fast cars, motorways or high speed rail to get them from A to B.

There was no flicking of a switch, or the turning of keys to start these machines up. The engines instead required loving work by their staff whose long shifts, often lasting up to 12 hours, even meant they had to cook their food on the move using the heat of the firebox – including frying bacon on a shovel, which I was lucky enough to have been given a demonstration of.

What’s more, their passengers would spend their journeys reading, talking and enjoying the scenery, rather than blasting music from their iPods or hurriedly completing reports on laptops and iPads.

Buckinghamshire Railway Centre to me was much like a living time capsule, giving an insight into a bygone era in which time was far less of the essence.

And much to my surprise, when I finally got round to driving the locomotive up and down the track guided by Bob, I was having a fantastic time.

Taking control of such a large piece of machinery, which was functioning as a result of the team’s hard work was incredibly rewarding, and actually a lot more exciting than I had originally anticipated.

Learning the role of the fireman and the driver, and the way in which the machines worked and were controlled was actually fascinating – as was seeing how a train line was once run, without the aid of electricity or digital systems.

So, speaking from the perspective of someone who would have put any railway centre at the bottom of their list of places to go, I would urge anyone to pay the centre a visit – it might just take you by surprise.