Gently steamed

18th July 1997 at 01:00
To some people, steam trains are a monochrome phenomenon, belonging to a black and white world of newsreels and old films, Ovaltine and the wireless.

But the fans of Thomas the Tank engine, trainspotters and daytrippers who flock to the Bluebell Line know different. From the brightly-painted engines and lovingly restored stations right down to the tin plate adverts for cure-all remedies ("Virol - delicate chests need it"), the Bluebell Line is a vibrant recreation of a bygone age. And the characters who run it are a colourful lot too.

During the week in term time, Terry Cole is head of maths at Weald School in Billingshurst, West Sussex. Come the weekend or the holidays and you'll often find him, dressed for the part in grimy overalls and black cap, on the footplate of a locomotive, taking tourists on a nostalgia trip. For Terry and hundreds of other enthusiasts, memory lane is a nine-mile stretch of track that meanders through rural East Sussex.

With a tug on the whistle, Terry sets the wheels of the 2.30 from Sheffield Park station in motion. The familiar chug-a-chug rhythm builds up as the locomotive - a 1930s freight engine sold for scrap in the Sixties, rescued and restored in the Seventies - sets off towards Horsted Keynes.

Travelling on the footplate is a bracing experience. The train shakes beneath your feet, the furnace blasts out hot air and the wind batters your face. The smell of the engine, a cross between a sauna and a coal fire, fills your nostrils.

Terry got a taste for it as a small boy when his family went to live near a railway line. "I can remember before that, going on holiday and smelling that smell - it's wonderful. There were still steam trains on the railways then but they were gradually disappearing and I wanted to do something to preserve them."

So he went to help out on the Bluebell Line when he was 16, started on the footplate when he was 22, and drove his first train at the age of 25.

Driving a steam train is a daunting task. There's no steering, just a few rudimentary levers to regulate the power, and a brake. But with 130 tons of engine and 150 tons of carriages to control, safety is a priority. "I've never had a serious accident although I've had a few near-misses - there are occasions when I have been lucky."

The brute force of the engine is tamed by subtle shifts of the levers and careful application of the brakes. Even the slightest gradient has the potential to send the locomotive careering off the track. "Most of the time you are just coasting along," Terry explains. "It's not the going that's the difficult part, it's the stopping."

You have to pass a rigorous driving test and medical before the Department of Transport will let you loose on a locomotive. Even then there's a definite knack to it. "Basically, you drive a steam engine on sound, by listening to the engine," says Terry. The gauges don't tell you much but every hiss and sigh of its mighty bulk is a measure of how an engine is running. And every engine is different.

"It takes about 10 years nowadays to become a driver. It took me about three because at the time I joined the railway I was able to get a lot of experience on the trains."

The Government closed the old East Grinstead to Lewes line in 1955. Disciples of this dying mode of transport rescued it four years later. The northern section, which passes through the longest tunnel on any steam railway on its way to Kingscote, was only reopened three years ago and there are plans to reclaim another two miles of line which would link it with the mainline station at East Grinstead. Terry has done just about every job on the Bluebell, and was on the board of the company that runs it for 21 years.

Making sure the trains run on time ("that's the main thing") needs about 20 people on any one day - and the Bluebell runs on more than 200 days of the year. But there's no shortage of volunteers. Today, Terry has Fleur and Martin doing his dirty work for him, shovelling coal from the tender into the furnace. It's not as straightforward as it looks. A good, level bed of coal is vital and needs regular replenishment to keep up a good head of steam in the boiler.

Pulling into Kingscote station, Terry spots someone from his village working on the platform. There's a camaraderie to the steam railway community and plenty of cheery acknowledgements along the way. Even complete strangers feel compelled to wave at trains - there's something friendly about them.

"One of the nice things about the railway is that it's like one big family. The social side of it is as important as the love of machinery."

Although he has a sideline running a small business buying and selling model railways, Terry doesn't let his hobby turn into an obsession - his wife wouldn't allow it.

"I'm not the sort of person who likes to sit around, I like to get involved. The trouble is I get too involved. My wife is not at all interested in steam trains. She's a head of modern languages so when we go on holiday it's usually to France. On the Eurostar."

New-fangled trains might get you from A to B quicker but if you like riding in style more than arriving in haste then, as far as Terry's concerned, there's only one way to travel.

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