Monday, 31 August 2015

Women can be engine drivers too - well, firemen anyway!

It's Bank Holiday Monday today, and (as is traditional in England) it's dull and wet. But instead of whizzing off somewhere in Fiona, and blasting away with the new Panasonic LX100, I can sit down and write another post. This one is about yesterday afternoon's visit to the local preserved steam line, the Bluebell Railway.

The Bluebell Railway was one of the first preserved steam lines to be set up, and has been around for over fifty years. It's geographically well-placed in the heart of the Sussex countryside, within easy reach of London. You can nowadays in fact take a modern electric train down to East Grinstead, change to the Bluebell Railway platform, and continue southwards to Sheffield Park - but steam-hauled in evocative old-fashioned compartment carriages like this...

...with slam doors like this...

...and passengers with dodgy lipstick like this...

Of course, if you are old enough to remember what it was really like to travel in a 1950s or early 1960s British Railways train carriage, you'll know that they weren't so beautifully varnished and upholstered, nor was the leather strap on the door window so pristine. It was all rather dirty and grimy and worn, and every carriage reeked of stale tobacco smoke. Mind you, I'm quite happy to sacrifice strict nose-wrinkling authenticity for the immaculate and comparatively hygienic 2015 version!

Anyway, I turned up at Sheffield Park, the station at the southern extremity of the line, around 3.00pm. It has two large public car parks, but they were both packed, and I was very lucky to find a space for Fiona. By the way, I should explain that while I love railways, I'm not fascinated with the trains, signal boxes and other paraphernalia from what you might term the 'engineering' point of view - you know: the lure of fine workmanship, locomotive design, and arcane signalling technicalities. I see trains and stations, and bridges, and big viaducts, and waiting passengers, primarily as a series of photo opportunities, such as this grabbed shot at Barnstaple in March 2014, a late arrival emerging from the mist on a damp and chilly day:

Or Balcombe Viaduct, north of Haywards Heath, as in these 2010 shots:

Modern diesels and electric trains impress me with their comfort and smoothness, but otherwise stir me not. But steam trains now...they are so different, and so pre-eminently photogenic. And the various bits of them can make very strong pictures. And yesterday was only a week after buying the Panasonic - did I really need any further excuse or justification for wanting to blitz everything at Sheffield Park?

I was not the only woman anxious for good shots. Women were everywhere, some with proper cameras, some with their phones, all clearly looking for interesting things to shoot.

The engine coming in above was a Southern Railway tank locomotive, and had been painted British Railways black only a few years before. Now it was resplendent in green.

It was going to haul a set of Pullman carriages northwards while the lucky passengers enjoyed Afternoon Tea. I spoke to a nice couple, Pat and Kevin, down from London for the day. They had eaten Sunday Lunch in one of the same Pullman carriages earlier on - it had cost them £60, but the experience (great food and wine) had been a beautiful one. 

I knew just how nice that might have been. I had once travelled in a Pullman carriage on a sunny day in late March 1990, as part of an 'Orient Express' outing from London Waterloo to Brockenhurst in the New Forest, with several hours at the National Motor Museum and Beaulieu House and grounds included. All for free. It was a team reward for W---, who was working for a big engineering firm at the time, involved in rebuilding the Piper Alpha oil platform in the North Sea. And as each significant stage was successfully completed, the workforce - the London office staff anyway - were given some big treat. I was tagging along as the spouse. Unfortunately, I didn't take many photos of the train, nor the yummy Morning Coffee and Afternoon Teas we were served while racing through the Hampshire countryside, going out and returning. Those were print film days, and I was rationing myself to keep costs down. I have found one scanned shot of myself standing next to a Pullman carriage named Ione. But Ione wasn't at Sheffield Park yesterday.

The driver of the train that came in was an older chap, and he looked every inch the part. Here he is watching a man connect up the various linkages. Before modern couplings, someone had to get down there between the buffers and get their hands dirty! Ugh.

Left in the cab was the fireman - or should I say firelady? How cool was that? She was shovelling a bit more coal into the mouth of the firebox (or whatever it's called). Aha! So some ladies actually get a chance to do this! You'd think that they would be discouraged by the men, in a mild-but-firm chauvinistic sort of way. But evidently not. Excellent.

This was her target. It probably isn't all that easy to get a big lump of coal into that gap every time, on a lurching footplate. 

You can't help noticing that big red lever! I bet only the driver gets to work that. I wonder what it's for?

The firelady was OK about adults stepping onto the dangerous footplate to get a close up look at all those controls, provided they were carefully supervised by children. Here's one keen little lad inspecting the furnace:

I have a 2008 shot that shows the same firelady, I think... she's clearly a woman of some years' experience on the footplate, and may one day hope to actually drive a train herself. I do hope they let her.

Once coupled, the Pullman train still had to hang around until another southbound train arrived on the other platform (the Bluebell Railway is single-line between stations). I looked in at the platform-level signal box...

...which is, of course, an entirely girly thing to do, as this 2014 shot from a Devon signal box proves!

I also observed the passengers tucking into their Afternoon Tea. 

At last the other train came in, and the Pullman train, with steam up, began to hiss and whoosh to some purpose. How much better the smoke and steam would have looked against a blue sky! Even so, it was (as always) quite a thrill to see the beast champing at its bit. 

And then it was unleashed, and sped away with a huff-huff-huff:

Encouraged, I next decided to look at the locomotive shed. Although it was a bit dim in there, it was (as I knew from previous visits) a fertile source of great photographs. Only a few of the trains were semi-permanent exhibits, so to speak, waiting a long time for their turn in the workshop. The scene in the shed was always different if you went there only once or twice during the year. I liked to shoot huge driving wheels and coupling rods and features of all kinds, including number plates and exquisite examples of the workshop painter's art. Of couse, you had to get down and get close to all these metal monsters. I found them rather intimidating - just as I did as a child, when they would be 'alive' and very, very scary.

One engine, number 1618, had been there for years, and I'd had a chance to photo it with a succession of cameras - my Ricoh GX100 compact in 2008 (the top shot), my Nikon D700 SLR also in 2008 (next down), my Leica D-Lux 4 compact earlier in 2015, and now my Panasonic LX100 compact (the bottom shot):

Click on any of these to see a gallery and get a closer view, allowing in each case a few seconds for Blogger (or is it Picasa?) to generate full resolution. Personally, I think the new Panasonic compact is almost as good as the Nikon SLR. In the bottom 'Panasonic' picture there are actually cobweb filaments to be seen, although you'll probably have to view the same shot on my Flickr site in order to discern them. This particular shot was taken handheld at one sixtieth of a second at f/2.0 and ISO 500. (I do know that, even if I haven't a clue what type or class of locomotive it is!)

Outside in the yard, at the far end of the shed, was a sweet little engine named Bluebell:

I wonder if its name has always been Bluebell?

And what did this visit cost me? Well, not much. I paid £3 for a platform ticket (although I'm sure nobody would have challenged me if I'd simply walked onto the platform), and £1.90 for tea and a four-fingered Kitkat in the Bressemer Arms, the Bluebell Railway's own pub-cafĂ©. Less than a fiver. The Last of the Big Spenders. 


  1. Lovely photos. The Tanfield Railway, in the North East, has a lady engine driver and featured in my post of 17th July. I love the photo of the guy sitting down while she does all the work!

    'Bluebell' was one of the two locos that ran in the early days of preservation. She was christened 'Bluebell' in 1961, lost it for a while, and now has it back.

  2. Thanks, Angie! I thought you might know.


    1. I'm a veritable font of useless information!


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