Last weekend at Wiston Park in Steyning thousands of people gathered together to celebrate the age of steam and it was wonderful to see young and old joining together to be part of a community event. The Wiston Steam Fair is volunteer-led, no big corporations, just charitable organisations and local businesses keen to commemorate the development of the commercial steam engine and show-off their steam-related contraptions. It’s a far cry from the digital world we live in now and it’s a reminder of life before automation when people lived and worked in the country, handcrafting goods in workshops and not washing their hands. Then steam power replaced wind and water power as a means to drive machinery during the industrial revolution in the late 19th century and humanity plunged down a new trajectory that would change the face of the world in many ways.
Thankfully the mid-morning sun was a pleasant 19c as opposed to the crazy 26c the south coast had endured over the previous few days, so the grass felt cool under my paws and John didn’t have to pack my frozen water bottle which I lick when I get too hot. As we wandered along the rows of exhibits, my senses were stirred by bizarre sounds and smells like the pungent whiff of hot-dogs and chips and the discordant mix of tunes from the carnival rides and the fairground organ. I stood mesmerised by the carousel going round and round with the porcelain ponies going up and down and I had to fight the urge the jump up for a ride. I thought it would be fun and I was sure an attractive black feline would get a discount on the admission price so I hopped on, picturing myself sitting debonair atop a haughty horse. Sadly the reality was quite different and the undulating flow of movement gave me motion sickness. I stepped carefully towards the edge of the merry-go-round swaying back and forth when my John appeared from nowhere and scooped me into his arms. Well that was fine, there was no time for frivolity anyway as John was keen to ditch the digital for the day and start using his old-fashioned second-hand film camera.
There were hundreds of exhibits as well as displays of more than 50 different steam machines from rollers to locomotives, lorries and traction engines. Some of them were rusty and dirty straight from the farm, while others looked pristine coated in shiny paints of burgundy or British racing green. Whatever the condition of the engine, each one was tended to with pride by people tinkering with mechanical parts or polishing brass-work and wooden panels. A little girl waved at me as she drove her miniature plough past me and the cheeky miniature train driver tooted his klaxon which made my jump. John and I caught the trailer ride up the hill and I’ve never seen so many buses in one place before. Yellow, green and red double-deckers as far as my eyes could see, along with old military vehicles, bicycles and motorcycles. We followed the vintage vehicle parade down to the next field while I scanned the spectacle for a yellow Robin Reliant van labelled Trotters Independent Traders. Although I didn’t see any faces I recognised from Only Fools and Horses, there were plenty of Del Boys around, like this guy eating an ice-cream with his rusty brown dog who was wagging his tail furiously while he licked his vanilla cone.
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.
I might be an enlightened cat living in a modern world, but my soul is traditional which might be why I enjoy seeing humans use time-honoured practical skills to build and nurture things of beauty, such as six-foot scratch posts, steam engines and home-made raspberry jam. My old-fashioned curiosity was satisfied at the fourth annual Wiston Steam Rally last weekend which was held in Steyning in the middle of the charming West Sussex countryside.
There were a variety of stalls and craft tents selling local products as well as a fairground, although John wouldn’t have noticed the entertainment because he spent most of the time with his head up a coal-bunker! Regular readers may know that he is a real steam enthusiast and was happy to be strolling around in the open air surrounded by like-minded people. There was no room for obsessive compulsive disorder amongst the steam engine aficionados who were busy working on a machine with one oil-covered hand while munching sandwiches with the other!
There were apparently over 600 exhibits including steam engines, vintage and classic cars, lorries, military vehicles, tractors, bikes and motorbikes. Can you see the colourful object that depicts 3 ladies carrying union jacks, 2 attractive blonde heads adorned with wings, angelic cherubs playing musical instruments and a flamingo? It’s actually a magnificently sculpted organ and if you look carefully you can see the pipes showing through the gaps in the craftsmanship. Wood-cutting techniques were also being demonstrated and it is worth noting that the woodmanship was being carried out with proper consideration to ecological woodland management.
My little paws were feeling the strain as we headed towards the exit so a kind black dog let me hitch a ride with him on a miniature tractor while John walked beside me. My trip in the trailer was a bit bumpy and there was a faint whiff of farmyard substances about the dog, but it was good fun and made people laugh. By the time we got to the car for the journey home, I settled happily down for my pre-supper nap, a smile on my face and a purr in my heart.
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.