Shad goes back to Bluebell

Planes, trains and automobiles.  John is an enthusiast of all things fast and roaring.  That must be why he loves me so much!  Ok ok, I’m not that fast, but I do roar a lot when I’m trying to get my point across, as I explained to the handsome black labrodor on the platform at Bluebell Railway the other day.  He said his name was Marmeduke but his friends call him Dukie (not Duckie apparently)!  Dukie was there with his owner, a strong young man covered in axel grease we had seen earlier working on an some kind of engine as part of a vintage car rally just by Horsted Keynes station.  I told Dukie how impressed I was with his patience and generally angelic behaviour, given that the last dog I met was a mad yappy thing that arrived at my house one day, got majorly on my nerves and never came back!  Dukie on the other hand was composed, dignified and rather fetching for a canine.  He chuckled and explained that he was as much of a train buff as his owner and could spend hours watching the trains come and go and enjoying the cultured atmosphere.

The attention to detail at the Bluebell Railway makes it easy to transport yourself through time to the 18th century when someone called Tobias Hornblower would have tipped a station employee to carry his leather studded trunk boxes on to the sleeper car while he escorted his lady friend Ellsepeth Humfray to the dining car for a meal of mutton with thyme, marrow-bone hash and oatmeal pudding (eeww)!  The working model train in the station museum was so meticulously made that it had an operational junction box, sign-writing on the passenger carriages and freight wagons, and even different expressions on the train guards’ faces.

Dukie and I wandered around talking about the polished veneer carriages and the intricate engine parts that required many hours of human labour to be maintained.  We admired the volunteers who gave up their time to preserve this unique bit of English heritage and agreed that the whistles, chuffs, puffs and sighs of the steam engines were delightful to hear.  He showed me how he can sniff out a dining car at over 100 paces and I showed him the most effective strategy for acquiring a meaty snack from the kitchen assistants.  Then I showed him the best spot for a nap inside the station master’s cabin and he shared his water bowl with me.  We had a lovely time.


Shad’s big adventure (part 2)

My feline friends were shocked when I told them that I wanted to visit Wildlife SOS because it’s in India, a long way from home and a surprising turn of events for a cat who enjoys his home comforts and prefers not to overexert himself unduly.  But the allure of the rescued pachyderms was proving hard to resist and I was curious about their natures and the lives they now lead.  John took the most convincing as he was obviously worried (although at the time I didn’t understand why) but he eventually agreed and was delighted that I was about to embark on my first big adventure.  The preparations were a gargantuan task – insurance, visa, tickets, travel arrangements, safety issues, health implications, access to food and water, car drivers, vaccinations, communication with home, etc.  But after months of planning, I set off with my backpack ready to experience everything that my quest had to offer.

I asked a few people to take some snaps of me on the way and you can see me snoozing with my blanket on the plane and chatting with the air stewardesses in these photographs.   My driver met me at the airport and as I started the 4 hour ride to my first stop, I understood John’s concerns.  The roads were chaotic with cars driving in every direction, missing each other by a whisker and honking their horns incessantly while cows and stray dogs wove their dangerous way through the traffic and motorbikes zoomed past carrying 3 or 4 people at a time with no helmets and babies in tow.  Piles of rubble and litter lined the streets while swarms of people went about their daily business in the stifling heat.

My first night in India was spent at a hotel in Rajasthan so that I could visit Ranthambore National Park the next day, an area designated as a protected habitat for a range of the country’s indigenous wildlife from palm squirrels to porcupines, pythons to hyenas.  The jeep arrived the next morning for the tour and I hopped on to the front seat as the rear row was occupied.  To my horror the seat belt didn’t work and I was not prepared to risk life and limb so a gentleman in the back agreed to swap places with me.  This turned out to be a wise move as the jeep drove like the clappers all the way to the entrance of the park.   At this point the jeep slowed down just enough for me to take in the bleak terrain, an eerie mix of barren sandy earth speckled with bunches of dry yellow grass and dead-looking saplings.  Here and there, a water hole was hidden in the desolate landscape and even a lake shimmered quietly surrounded by lush green trees which were lucky enough to find a means of quenching their thirst.  Animals gathered at the ponds including spotted dear, blue bull antelope, peacocks, monitor lizards and a myriad of smaller birds like bright green parakeets, little black and white wagtails, crows, sparrows and finches.

The highlight of the tour was the fantastic sighting of a beautiful tigress wandering through the dry grasslands marking her territory by spraying on nearby vegetation.  Unfortunately the sighting caused a frenzy of activity when the jeeps in the area all converged towards this amazing animal but thankfully she took it in her stride, looking over her shoulder from time to time without showing any signs of obvious stress.  I gazed in awe at this magnificent member of my species and the jeeps followed her at a reasonable distance until she sauntered off into the forest.  She was truly stunning, lean, untamed and radiant, and I wished there were more of them but sadly they are dramatically decreasing in numbers thanks largely to poaching to meet the demands of humans who believe in the medieval principles that form the basis of Chinese medicine.  So there I was, lost in the wonder of the moment, contemplating the splendour and complexity of the world’s ecosystem, when the jeeps suddenly  revved up their engines and began hurtling away at breakneck speed.  Bumping and skidding across the rubble on the paths, my bottom left the seat on several occasions and I gripped on to the side bar as though my life depended on it.  Dust flew up from the tyres and the jeeps one behind another like a giant snake tore towards the exit.  Apparently they were in a hurry because they were late and had to be out of the park by 7pm so that the tigers could enjoy some peace and quiet, the drivers are heavily fined if they fail to leave on time.  It was a fur-raising ride but we made it to the borders of the park with seconds to spare and I breathed a sigh of relief until I saw how much dirt was on my coat and realised I’d have to spend the next 2 hours licking it all off.

Unfortunately Video very jumpy difficult to it still in these jeeps

Shad does the West Somerset Railway

The gleaming dark green steam engine chugged softly along the platform before its polished black piston rods and driving wheels came to a stop right in front of us.  I looked up to see its driver in his blue overalls covered in smudges of coal smiling down at me on the platform at Bishops Lydeard near Taunton in Somerset.  He told me there would be a wait before departure so John and I decided to take a look around the platform museum before finding a seat on the train.  The museum has on display original relics from bygone years including station name boards, lamps and signalling equipment, as well as black and white pictures depicting scenes of small children being evacuated during World War II and other stories that show how the railway affected people who worked on and used the line.  While John played with the working model railway inside the museum, I wandered through the plethora of bluebells that lined the platform, smelling their sweet scent and adding a little of my own.

As the whistle blew, John came dashing out of the museum and we trotted back to Platform 1 to catch the Kinlet Hall (train number 4936 for all you train enthusiasts).  The Women’s’ Institute had reserved the whole of the first carriage to themselves but we managed to find comfy seats in the next carriage along ready for our journey to Minehead.  “All aboard” bellowed the smartly dressed station master with his long black jacket and shiny golden buttons and the engines hissed in anticipation of take-off.  The hissing got louder and great plumes of steam floated past the window as the train moved slowly forward and the engines began their rhythmic clanger-dee-clack, clanger-dee-clack.  The hissing quietened and the old steam locomotive gradually picked up speed, singing a song that made my John’s face light up – huff puff huff puff, choofa doofa choofa doofa!

The beauty and tranquillity of the countryside around us was a privilege to behold and the fields and valleys of Exmoor’s National Park made me feel glad to be alive. I saw church steeples peeking over the top of lush green trees, beaches of pale sand stretching out to rock pools where whelks, limpets and shore crabs live, and high stems of wheat in cornfields that must have hidden a wealth of wildlife like badgers, dormice, moles hedgehogs.  We arrived at our destination of Minehead a quintessentially English seaside town, and took a stroll along the coastline enjoying the fresh sea air of the Bristol Channel.  On our return trip to Bishops Lydeard I chuckled at the delightfull quirky names of some of the stations we stopped at along the way like Williton, Watchet and Stogumber.  The whole experience was wonderfully nostalgic and by the time the train came to a complete halt, I had drifted off into one of my daydreams.  This time I was dressed in a smart black jacket with golden buttons with my very own whistle helping the station master issue tickets and make tea for the engineers!

Shad takes his first trip on a train

John likes the smell of burning coals, I prefer the aroma of ‘Just Tuna Flakes in Sauce’, but everyone’s different!  The smell of burning coals was not the only odour to waft up my nostrils during my second visit to the Bluebell Railway.  My tail stood erect with the tip bent over in greeting as I trotted importantly past the friendly Station Master and twitched my nose as I picked up the scent of bacon and eggs from the restaurant, the flowers that lined the banks of the station, and the whiff of polish being used to buff the brass components of the steam engines sitting in the engine shed.

I hopped on to a bench and basked in the warm sunshine, watching John jostle with the other photographers and steam engine fanatics to get some good shots of the rolling stock.  Every time a steam engine blew its whistle, they would all dash over to it like a herd of gazelles, trying to find the best position.  Suddenly one of the guards announced that the 11am train to East Grinstead was about to arrive and crowds of happy faces gathered at the edge of the platform, eager to step on to the vintage vessel and take a trip across the countryside and back in time.

This particular train was built in 1925 and made it through the Second World War to be lovingly restored and maintained by the good folks whose passion for steam engines motivates them to spend many hours of their spare time working at the station in various capacities.  John scooped me up and put me in my basket so that I was safe and we settled into a third class carriage with a compartment all to ourselves.  There were no electronic doors or security cameras, it was authentic and old-fashioned inside, complete with highly polished wood and brass, pre-war advertising slogans and rusty metal signs in old money.

As the locomotive chuffed along the tracks, I gazed intently through the window at the woodland and fields of grass, desperate to catch a glimpse of some native British wildlife.  Suddenly John pointed through the glass at some deer grazing serenely in a pasture and I was pleased to see a few other forms of life including horses, birds, sheep, cows and bunnies.  The most commonly occurring forms of life were the train-spotters with cameras lurking in all sorts of weird and wonderful places off the beaten track!  It took around 45 minutes to get from Sheffield Park Station to East Grinstead where we stretched our legs before hopping back on for the return trip.  It was a fabulous experience, chugging along through the countryside, a gentle breeze flowing through the compartment.  There was a distinct sense a community about the workers at the station who had a love of steam engines in common and the passengers who shared an appreciation for nature and the simpler things in life.