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Letting off steam

Between the ages of six and my late teens I spent many of my summer Sunday afternoons playing with trains. You may be thinking at this point 'No wonder he's such a nerd, he should have been out in the fresh air,' but actually I was outside at the time. Because this was no attic train set.

One of my first solo drives, not trusted yet with passengers. The engine
is Lancashire Lad, one of the smaller models, but always among my
favourites as it was easy to drive and very reliable.
My dad was a model engineer - his hobby was building these stunning working model steam locomotives. No 0 or 00 gauge here - we are talking 3.5 and 5 inch wide track, plenty big enough to carry 10 passengers behind. As part of the Rochdale Society of Model and Experimental Engineers (by its website, still going strong), most Sundays we would toddle up to Springfield Park where the society's track was and indulge in a wondrous time.

Of course my favourite activity was driving. The controls are very similar to the real thing, with the added complexity that you also have to do the fireman's job as well as driving, frankly the harder of the two. This involved keeping the fire at the right level - not too hot, but not damped down with too much coal, and the delicate job of balancing the water supply, tweaking the bypass so that you kept the boiler at just the right level. It was brillant, particularly when your passengers were a string of squealing girls.

To be fair, driving was a luxury. I wasn't allowed to do it until I was 10, and was usually limited to one hour's session (though I might get another in if I was lucky), but I also enjoyed being on the ticket booth, managing the platform, and even being on the dirty end, starting engines from cold (the smell of paraffin soaked charcoal used to get the fire started, and the whine of an electric blower, still brings this all rushing back) and raking out the ashes and cleaning them down after a shift. I even played in the park sometimes.

I suspect there were long boring bits and lots of rain-stops-play - we tend to forget those. But in the joyous recreation of memory it was always a sunny day with a couple of engines in steam and the sound of the whistle and the squeals as one of the trains rattled into the tunnel echoing in my ears.

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