I’m leaving on a steam train... don’t know when i’ll be back again
IT started like something out of a black and white weepy – standing on a station platform as steam filled the air and the impressive weight of the Tangmere Engine glided into West Hampstead station – and by the end of day the romance of the railways had left me close to tears.
Booked onto the first steam train in half a century to go through West Hampstead I was the envy of my friends and colleagues – and my mother, whose birthday we were celebrating was looking forward to her first visit to historic Lincoln.
The train had created a bit of a stir in West Hampstead and we were joined on the platform by delighted trainspotters of all ages hopping from foot to foot with anticipation, rushing across the platform for the best view and hurtling to the front of the engine for a snap with the famous steam train.
So distracted was I by this outburst of childish joy I forgot to get on the train – suddenly I was hauled through the drivers entrance and had to make my way embarrassed past piles of coal and drivers packed lunches to my seat in the luxury part of the train.
Everything was perfect – sitting in Premier Dining class, with a glass of champagne in hand, my mum seemed delighted with her birthday treat.
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There is something magical about a steam train. More leisurely than a speeding commute it invites you to stare out the window – and people stare right back.
All the way through London and beyond train workers stopped to stare. Shoppers in supermarket car parks rushed to the fences to wave and professional trainspotters stood on ladders alongside the tracks in order to get the perfect shot.
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Three hours in and looking forward to a leg stretching stroll around Lincoln, we stopped directly outside a housing estate. And we didn’t move again for two hours.
The diesel engine, brought along to push us up a slight hill at Finsbury Park, had conked out so the steam train was unsafe to drive. It seemed ironic that the steam train had been brought down by something as uninspiring as a diesel – but apparently this is more likely. Steam trains are lovingly cared for while diesels are neglected.
Finally hungry and tired although still sympathetic with the charming staff and frustrated management, we arrived in Lincoln at gone 4pm – told to return to the station at 5.30pm.
Leaving behind the winding queue of disgruntled passengers waiting for a taxi I forced my long-suffering but luckily quite fit mother to power walk up the vertical cobbled streets to Lincoln Cathedral arriving before the hordes and having the cavernous building practically to ourselves.
The Cathedral is stunning, built in 1072 on the instructions of William the Conqueror, of pale oolitic limestone which is still quarried in the Cathedral’s quarry in Lincoln highlights include the medieval rose windows.
Cathedral seen there was no time for the Magna Carta, or the Roman remains or the Norman castle while many of the small shops in historic Bailgate were closed – it was time to rush back on the train.
On the return journey we were upgraded to Pullman class – some passengers had decided to try their luck with a normal train back to London. The seats upholstered in green patterned luxe fabric, little lights were on all of the tables and canap�s and champagne awaited us.
After smoked mackerel, partridge and a summer pudding stack I was placated, I could return to Lincoln anytime I want – here it was all about the journey. And the wine.
And then we stopped. This time panic rippled through the carriage. Surely, surely we could not be delayed again. We were. Just outside Peterborough the Tangmere Steam engine had blown, causing a heartbreaking �100,000 of damage and creating an immovable block on tracks.
Marcus Robertson, the chairman, could do little more than sincerely apologise and try to shrug off the painful coincidence of two engines breaking down in one day – the first time in 500 trips.
The new diesel engine pulled us back to Peterborough, turned around, and took us back, steamless, to London. Hopping off at the first opportunity – an unscheduled stop at Finsbury Park I realised it was past 11 and I wouldn’t be home until midnight.
The West Hampstead steam dream had turned into a nightmare and yet the next morning, recovered from my 10 hour train ordeal, I was still happy I had gone.
I had been transported into the world of the Railway Children for a few hours, the fascination with steam and travel that these magnificent engines brought.
Many of my fellow travellers must have felt the same – 50 have already re-booked with the company, a dozen to Lincoln. And to be honest, I’d quite like to join them.