A day learning to drive steam locomotive Siân


I guess it shows my age, and gender, to say when I was young the ambition of most young boys was to be an engine driver.

Nearly half a century on and the Camden Booklist Camden Miniature Steam Services dropped through my letter box. Adam Harris included in the booklist the information that the Siân Project Group were running driver training courses. So with ambition rekindled I checked out the website Siân project group and an email to Owen Ryder confirmed a place was available which I promptly booked.

For me, and my long suffering wife Kathy, the adventure started the evening before D day. We booked into the same accommodation as Geoff, Owen and John (cast in order of appearance) and went to the Ship Inn with them for a meal. I think Kathy expected us to talk steam and railways all night and leave her sidelined (pun intended!). However she soon found we were not in the company of 'anoraks' but interesting people with interesting occupations and pastimes. Although of course talk about Siân did predominate and rightly so. The local ale was good too with several to try out. I was careful to keep to a modest intake so as to have a clear head in the morning.

Saturday dawned dry and bright and after an early breakfast we drove the few miles to Windmill Farm Railway where Siân is resident. On with the overalls, a quick mug of tea then we pushed Siân out of the engine shed and into the sunshine. From the very start it was 'hands on' and after the initial checks, like water level, Owen explained how to place the wood in the firebox and light the fire. Then as Siân warmed up, Kathy was very amused to see us lovingly cleaning and polishing. Lots of Brasso, Mr Sheen and elbow grease and Siân was soon gleaming. As the pressure increased she came alive. Above 85psi boiler pressure the blower works so the draught tube chimney extension was removed and forced draught soon had the fire burning brighter. It is important to heat her up slowly though to quickly to minimise the thermal stresses. Owen took pains to explain how she works and to answer my many questions. With all checks completed and oil pots filled there was time for another mug of tea before the first run of the day.

It was a beautiful Saturday in August, so lots of passengers, and I found it strange to be seen as a driver by awe-struck little boys. Well it was by their dads if I'm truthful. In reality of course at that stage I was a passenger too except riding on the footplate. Perhaps I should say learner driver because I had already learned a lot. I could operate the injectors to add water to the boiler, shovel coal into the firebox and operate any one of the three braking systems. Not forgetting having learned about the cylinder drain cocks and when to use them. Plus loads of other details, including having fun tooting the very loud whistle.

The track is not miles long but that is one of the attractions. It has gradients and tight curves to keep the driver busy. Look out for Mole who watches from centre track at about half way. At Lakeview Station at the far end, Jerry our Guard applied the brakes on the rolling stock and uncoupled Siân. We then drove her around the stationary rolling stock to couple up again on the other end. Owen makes it look so easy to stop Siân in exactly the right place for coupling. I found this far more challenging when it was my turn later in the day.

After a brief stop we headed off again. This time travelling backwards which meant a clear view with no steam and smoke in the face. On the incline Owen opened up the regulator and Siân made that lovely 'chuff chuff chuff chuff' sound. Four chuffs to a cycle, there being two double acting cylinders. The evenness of each chuff ('square' is the technical term) shows she is now a well maintained loco. Again at the station Owen brought us to a halt at exactly the right spot. I won't tell you how close, well ok how far off the spot, I was at my first attempt. We continued this passenger service every half an hour with a break for lunch when John took over the driving.

We partook of lunch at the Windmill Animal Farm café and sat at a table in the yard. This was probably the most dangerous part of the whole experience. Lots of small children on pedal tractors were whizzing around and crashing frequently (only joking)

Toasted sandwich, eccles cake and a pot of tea then it was back to the driving. On each trip I learned more about the intricacies of steam engine firing, driving and maintenance with Owen teaching at just the right rate for me.

Kathy took my place on the footplate for one trip and got an understanding of why I find Siân so attractive. Even if only with maternal tolerance and probably thinking "It's a phase he's going through".

My turn to drive came when the passenger service finished. My first chance at the regulator was a huge thrill. To be actually driving a steam loco. Albeit with Owen talking me through each step. After two runs he said "ok you're on your own now. I'll only speak if you are about to do anything daft". Scary or what? I managed it without incident though. I had about an hour at the controls then we made a lot of noise with a safety valve test. Then an even noisier 'blowdown' to clear sediment from the boiler.

All too soon we were tucking her up for the night, technically 'disposal'. That was also fun and an education in itself.

By the finish we were both looking like coal miners at the end of a shift. Mainly due to my heavy hand with the blower, but the soot and grime soon washed off in the shower back at the B&B.

It was a fantastic experience. One I will never forget. These few words are a reminder for me but can do no more than scratch the surface as a record of the day which would take a volume to describe properly. I came away tired both mentally and physically having learned a huge amount and had great fun in the process.

After the proverbial "wash and brush up" in the B&B we walked up the road with Owen and John for a meal in the Indian restaurant. Another interesting experience. The food was superb and good value but the waiters not the most communicative people we've met. More stimulating conversation with Owen and John, good food and a modest quantity of red wine whiled the evening away. We said farewell to our new good friends at the end of the evening as they were due back at Windmill Farm early next morning.

It is a shame Siân lives nearly four hundred miles from Cornwall and me. Still they do say absence makes the heart grow fonder and I will most certainly return to renew our acquaintance before long.

Most photos kindly taken by John with my camera. More here

I would recommend to anyone who has ever wanted to drive a steam train, this is the course to go on.

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