Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Remembering Steam

One of the books I will be returning to the library tomorrow is The Best of Southern Steam: The Final Decade. This is a lovely book charting the final decade of steam on the former BR Southern Region. I know most people would sniff at the idea of buying a book of pictures of steam trains but indulge me for a minute or six.

These photographs are more than just pictures of steam locomotives puffing at the end of long and heavy trains. It's a much about the techniques of composition and what's going on around the subject and in the background. It is a thoughtful portrait of not only a railway age that has disappeared but a whole way of life that has been lost. Gone are many of the quaint branch lines featured in this book as have the well dressed ladies. As much as anything this book is a social commentary on changing attitudes of Britain as it is the passing of the steam age into oblivion.

For all that though, it still is a steam buffs dream through and through. The pictures I think are gorgeous, capturing beautifully the power and grace of magnificent steam engines like Bullied's 4-6-2 'Pacifics', built for the Southern Railway. I am looking at a page now, depicting three of these locos - a Merchant Navy and two Battle of Britain class locomotives. They're all in their original streamlined condition, not falling fate to the rebuilding that was undertaken by British Railways.

I know most people will wonder what all the fuss is about. I've always been drawn to steam engines though and these particular locos that I mentioned are my favourite of them all. They were designed by Oliver Bullied, the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Southern Railway and began to enter service from 1941 onwards. In all 140 locomotives were built in three similar classes. These were the Merchant Navy, Battle of Britain and West Country classes. All 30 of the Merchant Navy class locomotives were rebuilt under BR, having their streamlined casing removed and 60 of the so-called 'Light Pacifics' of the Battle of Britain and West Country classes were also rebuilt.

The locomotives were called 'Pacifics' because of their wheel arrangement (it's an American term) denoting 4 front axles, 6 main driving axles and 2 trailing axles, hence the configuration 4-6-2. They were used extensively on express services from London to the South Coast and the West Country hauling famous trains such as the Bournemouth Belle, The Golden Arrow and The Pines Express. They survived in steam right to the end on the Southern Region in 1967 and more than 30 have made it into preservation.

In 2004 I was very lucky to enjoy a trip on a train hauled by Battle of Britain Class 34067 Tangmere on a round trip from London Victoria via Clapham, the Hounslow Loop, Staines, Guildford, Redhill and the Brighton Main Line back via Clapham to Victoria. This was the first and only time that I have experienced steam on the main line and its something I will always remember.

It was so exciting to see Tangmere at Victoria, receiving the attention of a film star from admiring enthusiasts and intending passengers, hissing and puffing with expectant energy. To think that this was once an extremely common sight! Under the grand train sheds of stations like Victoria, it is sometimes hard to imagine just what noisy, smelly and smokey places these would have been. And just how romantic and fun the age of steam was.

The best part of this whole trip was the spirited run up the Brighton Main Line from Redhill back to Victoria, passing astonished commuters waiting for their trains at stations en route. They must have thought that they'd fallen through a temporary hole in time! One thing is certain; that when a steam train whistles, everyone turns to look. There something fantastic about seeing this magnificent metal beast shovelling great clouds of grey-black smoke into the sky. You just don't get that kind of thrill on a Pendolino!

That is why I've always been so enthralled with steam. It is man and machine battling the gradients and the elements. There is something alive in the smell and sight of a steam engine storming its way along the line which is so absent from any other form of transport.

Hopefully one day I will get to experience main line steam again. In the meantime though I have lovely books like The Best of Southern Steam to remind me of what it was like.

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