Talk about planes, trains and automobiles! John and I took 5 different modes of transport in one day on our trip to the Isle of Wight last weekend and we must have seen 5 different kinds of weather too. The day started at 6am when I hopped on to John’s chest to wake him up but the gentle back and forth of his warm hand on my head and rhythmic rise and fall of his diaphragm sent me drifting back into a sumptuous slumber. My eyes opened a while later and I jumped off the bed to find John in the kitchen making a packed lunch and the camera equipment in the hallway ready to go. It was pitch-black outside and a damp 3ºc when we got into the car for the drive to Portsmouth but John knew exactly how to make the trip go quickly by supplying me with my favourite shrimp snack balls in the car and ensuring that my ears were not subjected to any Christmas songs on the radio. I know, bah humbug!
Gradually the dark turned to gloomy grey and then burnt orange as the sun struggled to peek through the thick layer of cloud above us and we transferred from the car to our next form of transport – my first ride on a double-decker bus. We climbed the narrow winding steps to the upper deck and sat at the front where the view through the floor to ceiling glass was fascinating. The hard plastic seat was cold under my bottom and the window kept steaming up but we were higher than the top of the traffic lights and it felt like we were going to crash every time we turned a corner. I imagined I was piloting a space craft through a mysterious shadowy nebula and the shimmering red light ahead became the glow of a prototype artificial intelligence seeking information about life on earth to complete its mission. But before I could make first contact with this high-tech lifeform the bus came to a halt and we bundled out and headed towards our next style of carriage, the Wight Ryder 1.
The Portsmouth to Ryde catamaran hummed steadily across the steely sea of the Solent and by the time we arrived on the island the sun had smouldered its way through the cloud to give us sunny skies and a temperature of 5ºc. We strolled along Ryde pier past a flock of brown Brent geese bobbing up and down on the water and saw four elegant white swans flying in a perfect row along the coastline. Our bellies told us it was time for a decent breakfast so we stopped in a small local café for sustenance before the next leg of our expedition. As John finished his last mouthful of black coffee, we wrapped up warm and stepped back outside for the brisk walk to Ryde Esplanade station and a ride on the Island Line. The red Island Line coaches are old London Underground tube trains from the 1930s and were a fitting way to transport us back in time as we chugged slowly towards Havenstreet.
Havenstreet Station was originally opened in 1875 and is the focal point of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway incorporating a signal box constructed in 1926 and a water tower alongside one of the platforms that supplies the locomotives before they depart. We boarded our train and watched clouds of steam puff their way over the glossy paintwork on the meticulously restored engines as the pistons urged the machine forward and I waved to Charles Dickens who happened to be wandering up and down the platform. After a lovely ride through the Island’s unspoilt countryside I got the chance to meet Belle and Busby, two rescued donkeys who were visiting that day. A beautiful golden eagle watched us from afar and I heard a rumour that Father Christmas had just landed in his grotto and was busy handing out gifts. Eventually everyone had red noses as the freezing temperatures got through our scarves and beanies and into our bones and dark clouds wafted across the sky giving us our cue to head home. We waited frozen on the platform sheltering from the drops of rain that threatened to turn to snow until the little red train pulled up to the station for our ride back to Ryde. John spotted his opportunity for another coffee as we warmed up in the coffee shop at the end of the pier awaiting the fast-cat ferry back to the Portsmouth. The hovercraft rose effortlessly on its air cushion and glided across the sand to the open water propelled by those huge blowers and that was the last thing I remember until I saw the twinkling street lights of home.
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!
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.