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.
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.
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.