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.