How I Became Hooked


I came across this picture recently.  It was taken by the late Tony Burges and shows a British Railways (formerly Southern, originally South Eastern and Chatham) L class 4-4-0, on a passenger train somewhere in south-east England.  It is carrying a 75A, Brighton, shed plate.  There were many of these 1914 built, elegant locomotives in this area when I was young but this one was very special to me.

I was traveling with my parents to the Kent Coast.  I don’t know when, possibly in the late 1940s, but it was before my trainspotter days and I was in short pants.  It was a dark, dry, night and not particularly warm. We had come to Ashford where there was a lengthy station stop, possibly to take water.

Dad gave me permission to go and take a look at the engine.  I went alone but I suspect he kept an eye on me from the open car door.  As far as steam locomotives go the L class was quite small but to a young impressionable child it appeared gigantic and it towered above me.  The engineer smiled at me from his perch way above me.  I shouted out:

“Can I come up please?”

I was scared stiff.  In my heart of hearts I really wanted him to say no.  At least I would have asked and honor would have been satisfied.  However, he opened the door and smiled “Come on then”.

It was a very difficult climb up for a small, scared, boy.  The fireman had just finished hosing down the wooden cab floor and wisps of steam were rising slowly from the hot boards, swirling around until they were sucked into the fire through the gaps in the firehole doors.  The only illumination in the dark cab was the shafts of light from the fire.  There was a smell of hot oil and coal in the steamy atmosphere.  My bare knees were getting hot and I backed up to the cab side to be as far away from the fire as possible.  The fireman opened the firedoors and beckoned me over to take a look in.  The light from the fire was blinding.   I cautiously approached the raging furnace and peered in timidly.   He demonstrated his skill by throwing in a couple of shovelsful of coal adding to the din in the cab.  Sight, sound, smell and touch – I was experiencing this machine with all my senses. 

I had now had about as much as I could handle so I thanked them and made a hasty exit.  Getting down was probably more difficult than climbing up but I distinctly remember looking to my right and seeing the number 31777 painted on the cab side. I ran back to our car (coach) and climbed in where Mum cleaned the dirt off my hands and knees.  Her father had been an engineer (driver) on this line so she understood.

This brief cab (footplate) visit has remained indelibly etched in my memory.  It was the start of a wonderful roller coaster career which has always involved railways in some way, shape or form.  It has been great fun and I am looking forward to more.  However, it all started with a visit to 31777.

Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders - The Interchange, December 2015

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