Steam trains have never aroused in me the same sort of passion as, say, paintings or sculpture. But I can understand their fascination. They are, after all, mobile art. Standing there, resplendent in crimson or Prussian blue, a steam engine can bespeak as much imagination, artistry, inspiration, and history as a fine work of art. However, my intention is not to put forth the case of their artistic merit but rather to describe the quite unbelievable clutch they have over masses of enthusiasts.
I harbor one such enthusiast in our home, my husband, Jonathan. And it was for his charge of excitement, and because of our friends who proposed the idea, that I eagerly agreed to spend a day traveling on a steam train. It was only later that I learned of the daunting details, such as rising at 5 a.m. to catch an electric train leaving London from Euston Station bound for Crewe in Cheshire; then to change trains to the enthusiasts' special, pulled by a diesel locomotive headed for Carlisle in Cumbria, where, at last, we would meet a steam locomotive, the Lord Nelson,m which would take us to Skipton in Yorkshire; there change locomotives to the Sir Nigel Gresley,m chug along to Carnforth in Lancashire where the steam locomotives are housed, and wave goodbye to the age of steam, return to Crewe with our diesel again, and finally travel back to London on the ordinary British Rail train. We would not be home until midnight. In all, there would be an hour-and-a-half stopover in Carlisle, and the rest of the time would be spent on the train. Now that's a verym long time to spend on trains going nowhere.
But everyone assured me it would be great fun, a jolly good time, and so, to my relief, it was. Picnics were made of rich delicacies, chatter and laughter were continuous. And the quickly seen views out of our windows (which seemed more like a film than real life) were Northern England at its most glorious, full of drama and romance, of dales and those sturdy stone walls climbing up steep green hills and holding in flocks of sheep.
When we arrived in Carlisle, we wandered around this formidable border city between England and Scotland as though we were foreign parts (which for me, being an American, was true).
But at 2 o'clock, the official part of this trek was about to begin. You could feel the excited tension in the Station's atmosphere. Conrad, one of the friends who suggested the trip, began to show his true colors. He didn't just enjoy trains as Jonathan did; he was an expert. Up until then, he and Jonathan had exchanged steam train gossip, Jonathan having read book upon magazine about trains, while Georgie, Conrad's wife, explained to me patiently (as she had once been in my state of bewildered ignorance) the whole history and colour and purpose of steam trains.
But now Conrad was all business. While waiting on the platform, he started nudging Georgie gently, pointing out other enthusiasts whom he recognized by their rather worn-looking sport jackets and expectant faces. I kept thinking this was something significant, as I eyed everyone closely, until I noticed everyone was also eyeing me knowingly. I felt as though I should be knowledgeable about something that was still a mystery.
When we boarded the train, my only disappointment stared me bleakly in the face. The carriages were not what I had anticipated at all. Instead of old-fashioned seats with perhaps a bit of Twenties Panache, or velvet and dark paneling with old lighting fixtures and etched glass, these were plain dining cars from the Fifties, and to my untrained eyes, very unexciting rolling stock indeed.
But the enthusiasts didn't seem to notice. Every bit of Window space or, better still, door space (which allowed them to hang out the door window like the soldiers on the old war trains), was grabbed and treated like territorial rights. Those with window seats were not content to sit calmly gazing out at their view; they stood and knelt on the tables to pour themselves out of the window. And once the train took off, cameras clicked, tape recorders played, and those without windows or doors franticaly ran up and down the train to find an open space. And what were the cameras and tape recorders taking in? Steam! Great billows of the stuff, so that when we chugged alongside flocks of unsuspecting sheep or cows, they were momentarily lost from view.
Twice along the journey we made water stops, and it was during these that the enthusiasts clambered out of the cars to scramble for the best position for photographs. Jonathan and I did likewise, but I must admit to feeling a bit foolish, as though I were photographing a famous starlet. The quite incredible thing was that with each stop, we rushed out to take pictures of the same locomotive as if she had changed outfits along the way. Wherever we traveled, people were popping out of their cars and lining the tracks to photograph us and tape the sound of our steam chugs and the occasional perky whistle that sent the annoyed cows scampering across the fields.
Now all this glossy, once-in-a-lifetime treatment would be understandable to me if, in fact the Lord Nelsonm came out once in a lifetime -- or at least just oncem a year. But much to the consternation of all the animals in the district, it's once every week the steam train puffs it way through the dales, bringing its fanatical fans.
When we finally returned home that night, I did feel that after all those miles, we should be somewhere -- anywhere -- other than where we were. Indeed, it immediately felt as if it had all been a rather protracted dream in which everything seemed nonsensical and people kept doing the most absurd things. After all, we were still in our own home despite an entire day of travel, and the whole purpose of all those miles was simply to admire and ride behind something generally considered to be obsolete, dirty, and inefficient. But I also couldn't help wondering whether in fact nostalgia had gone quietly haywire without anyone noticing, or rather, had progress? Certainly one of the two is taking us for a ride.