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.
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!