Saturday, 25 October 2014

Women pulling the levers for a change

Let me describe a incident where, for once, male territory was invaded by women determined to see for themselves, and not be excluded. This assertion of basic fairness occurred at Instow, the little town on the other side of the river from Appledore. The women in question included myself. Here is the photographic proof that will forever overturn the glib (male) supposition that women are interested only in children, shopping, and dishy TV presenters.

It was a sunny day. Not a cloud was in the sky. Not a negative word was heard from the people passing by. I was among a large group of men and women enjoying a leisurely morning History Walk led by local historian David Carter. Some had come by car. Others by ferry across the River Torridge, from Appledore, presumably straight from a late breakfast. It was warm, very warm. There was no breeze. We were all glad we'd left coats and jumpers behind.

David led us all along the seafront, pointing out houses and facts of interest. Then it was up a side road, and along a bit, with tantalising river views glimpsed through buildings and down side alleyways that had a Mediterranean atmosphere.

Gradually we worked towards the climax of the History Walk - the remains of the former Instow railway station: chiefly a level crossing gate, a stretch of railway line, a platform - and a very well-preserved signal box which was specially open, complete with a man inside to tell visitors all about it.

David told us the history of the station. Impatient, the men tossed their heads and snorted, eyeing the steps up into the signal box. A scent of testosterone filled the air as he spoke, the men edging closer to the box all the time, jaw muscles flexing. Then the home semaphore signal tilted up, giving the 'Right away', and they made a push for the steps, like bulls charging.

Then a surprising thing happened. A phalanx of nimble women leapt up the steps ahead of them. The bulls, torn between 'ladies-first' courtesy and the imperative primal call of their railway gene, wavered, then conceded. They were utterly thwarted; and as it became clear that there would be no room at all for any men in the box, they were clearly minded to make a mild protest. But I shouted at them as I mounted the steps, 'No, it's our turn this time! You're always stopping us doing what we want to do!' They drew back, frustrated but powerless.

Inside, we had the undivided attention of the chappie in charge. I think he was rather chuffed to have such amazing female company. We asked all kinds of questions. We didn't actually get to touch the levers, but we persuaded him to give a demo (though secretly he wanted to do it anyway, of course):

One reason for not insisting on having a go was that these levers looked pretty hard to pull. I asked him about that. He said the home signals were easy (for a man), but the distant signals - linked mechanically to the signal box by a very long run of wire - were an entirely different proposition and required a learned technique to exert the right kind of effort. The cloth was essential, to give the hands a firm dry grasp.

I must say, on a sunny day, when the line was open, the signalman would have had a great view, as you can judge from these shots - first up the former line towards Fremington; and then across the river, showing incidentally another new friend (Sara, wearing the high-visibility jacket) at the foot of the steps:

We ladies stayed a bit overlong in the signal box, but nobody seemed to mind. Even the stallions who hadn't managed to see inside had stopped making a fuss. It was so lovely in the sunshine. David rounded off his historical tour of Instow, and we all dispersed.

The fire buckets hadn't been needed!

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