Friday, 22 January 2016

Shackerstone Memories: Prepping A Locomotive Recollections...

Hi everyone. This post is all new as I don't usually do posts like this. Most of the posts on this blog relate to the telling of a days events, generally following progress from the start of the day til' the end. In this post, I'm going to talk a little more about the mornings on shed with a full size locomotive; poetic though some of it may be. The information will date from as early as 2008 but I'm just trying to give that little insight into the day to day tasks that were involved in doing the job whist involved at Shackerstone and the mixture of different characters encountered. I hope you'll enjoy it...

To understand the mind-set of someone awoken from their slumbers before 5 o'clock in the morning, picture yourself leaving home whilst the rest of the world peacefully sleeps. Leaving home early is a trait that is inevitable with steam locomotives, particularly the big ones. In order to get up a good head of steam and carry out all of the necessary preparation tasks without making yourself late for the engines first duty, punctuality is key. I used to like to get in 30 minutes or so earlier than necessary, giving me that little bit of spare time that one would give all the money in the world for later on in the day. Arriving at Shackerstone when even the birds had barely risen, the first task was to grease up your hands opening the gates and then trundle the short distance to the station car park. The usual juggling act of carrying all of your kit along the dimly lit M6 widening of the ash pathway was then endured before falling gracefully through the door of the engine shed...

"The NRM T9 Steams Up" (April 2013)
Once inside, if all was well, the locomotive would be good & hot and a blanket of heat would engulf its vicinity. The false sense of security that heat gave to a yawning Fireman was taken from me in a flash one day when that heat just wasn't there! It turned out that the warming fire had not been as meaty as perhaps the locomotive required and, though she was good and hot, the fire hadn't created any steam. Recollection fails me on what engine that was but one of them had me sweating long before everyone's favourite Driver "I'm not a morning person" Eddie the Late turned in. Finding a locomotive in not quite the condition you expected seems to create two great phenomenons: 1) an unusual speed to every duty you perform and 2) the speeding up of time, reducing your once valuable hours to mere minutes in what feels like the blink of an eye. Mornings like that soon have you running for all the wood you can find which, in Shack shed, was minimal at best and often made a half-empty box of Swan Vesta's look like severe deforestation. By the time the fire was lit you were praying it would go, spilling every accelerant you could find on it to try and draw out some heat. Every Fireman, despite what they may say, has stood there looking at a pressure gauge before trying the ever reassuring..."its broken! This gauge is broken!". No, allas, it isn't broken, its just your luck! Another good one for those moments is the light hearted tap - as if a mere tap will suddenly generate a hundred pounds of steam - I've done it myself countless times when all hope seems lost! The engine would of course eventually spring into life and we were rarely late off shed, but these situations did create experience for the lowly Fireman and ones recollections of such situations were better than an alarm clock on cold winter mornings for getting you up on time! Theres nothing worse than the Driver looking across to you and saying "better get that needle up Sunshine" (a Batesy quote from 2012-ish)...
"A Good Warming Fire in 3803" (2014)
As a trainee, between 2008 and 2011, arrival at the shed was different each time. In your heart you wanted just to get on and have a go but it was nice, in a way, not to have the responsibility for the engine at the time. During the wonderful "Mayflower" years, I remember the late Gerald Boden always having classical music playing loudly whilst 1306 gracefully raised steam, a tradition later adopted by Pockets before the unfortunate demise of the radio. Gerald's ear for classical seemed to give more atmosphere to an engine warming through on a cold winter's morning, relaxing the crew effortlessly. In later years, you could tell who was on by the bark of the radio as some of the lads stuck on Kerrang whilst Jason was unmistakable in his choice of the well known Ukulele player George Formby! "Oh Mr Wu" was at one time a shed ballad whilst the engine came around. Anyway, I've gone off track (as it were). Back as a Fireman, the first job would be to check the water level in the boiler and of course have a look in the firebox, checking the stays, plugs and the general condition of what was left, if anything, on the grate. I remember happy mornings sat inside the roasting firebox of Great Western 2884 No3803, chipping away at the fire bars to free off clinker from that pesky open-cast Welsh Coal that burnt a treat but melted half the grate it sat on. At 6:00 in the morning, the last thing you want to do is sweat your weight in a firebox, chisel in hand and covered in ash. But, we do it and we'll continue to do it for the love of our steam engines - and quite right too...
"A Gloomy Grate Whilst Rocked in 3803" (2012)
Ashing out is perhaps one of a steam locomotives most wonderful tasks. Some engines, such as 3803 and the Black Five, included a rocking ashpan which was fabulous once the ash was nicely wet (stops the dust). On other engines, like the Standard Shunt's (Fowler 3F - 'Jinty'), you have to do it yourself with a rake and a hose which is, of course, no problem. What is a problem however are the little things that happen. A favourite of mine when ashing out, as was always the case at Shack whilst learning to do it as a youngster, was the fabled 'sleeve trick'. When ashing out, you wash the ash as much as possible, feeding the hose in as much as you can without melting the end. Then its time to rake the ash out but the water used to miraculously separate from the ash, join the cold metal of the rake and then travel neatly down its length and land perfectly in your sleeve. I've lost count of the amount of times that water from the ashpan has landed itself with expert precision in the sleeve of my overalls! The trouble is it runs down your arm too and you end up with a wet back...but HOW?...the laws of physics amaze me! If the water on the rake didn't get you then the old fashioned 'boot in a lake' would. Whilst you're raking your ash, the hose would be gently filling the pit and, once you'd got two piles of ash an accidental boot-deep splash into the created reservoir was completely inevitable. Many a wet boot has been enjoyed that way! Finally of course, there was the ash that could get you. I remember once Gerald was under "Mayflower" (which had a hopper pan but to keep the engine clean the ash would be washed thoroughly from underneath) and called for a "little bit more" and a "tiny bit more". This process went on for about 30 seconds before the final "little bit more" provided a satanic avalanche of filthy ash, engulfing not only the B1 but also the shed in a cloud of thick dust. Gerald came out looking like he'd spent a week at the coal face! Ashing out is perhaps one of those tasks that we all treat with that little bit of respect...
"The Then Trainee Me On 1306" (2009)
Another recollection from the countless was the amazing fan incident. Whilst burning the Russian coal, the engines were smoking the shed out of a morning. One morning a crew member on one of the engines recalled two old fans that had been in the roof since No11 pulled the first brakevan ride in the 1970s I reckon. On switching it on, to everyone's amazement, it worked and drew a whisp of the smoke out through the roof, aiding its gentle lift skywards. We then retired to the rest area for a cuppa', leaving the engine to sing away to herself before an almighty BANG was heard. The fan had quite happily released itself from its habitat in the shed roof and was sprawled across the shed floor in a mash of bits. The fixings must have been rusted through but it was just the way it worked for a second and then fell down!...
"The Beattie Well Tank - 30585" (March 2013)
Anyway back on the engine, the locomotive would gradually come round with the Fireman gently feeding the flames with whatever coal we were using at the time. We burnt it all: Russian, Polish, Welsh, Scottish and I think we had Daw Mill at one point. Each coal required a different fire and a different way of firing, particularly when raising steam. The Welsh stuff for example sat there waiting for Christmas, barely murmuring even when battered horrifically with the fire irons. It was fairly lifeless until the engine got it good and hot on a run. The Driver meanwhile would be going about the mornings tasks of oiling up and doing the routine FTR. I've had many good days on many engines at Shack and in particular I remember a cracking day on No323 "Bluebell" with JB. You can read the post about that here but it was a great time. I remember squeezing like a circus act into the motion of the little P Class to oil up the eccentrics and main cranks - I don't think I could do it now!...
"323 On Shed" (2014)
Another job of course around the engine shed is cleaning. Shack was always notoriously short of Cleaners as regards volunteers just there to Clean. Naturally the Driver and Fireman (who ever they were) had all been cleaners at some point but a lot of the time it was hard to do justice to a good clean on an engine with only two of you, particularly when considering that you'd often have 5 trains to do and possibly a Foot-Ex too!...
"The Shining Black Five 45379 at Shenton" (Sep 2012)
All of these things I write, though perhaps trivial to some, are all part of the general operation of a steam locomotive. They are labour intensive machines that require a lot of care and attention to keep them running but they, to me at least, are always worth it. The thrill of taking the regulator of an engine to gradually draw her outside into the morning sunshine under a cloudless blue sky is a great feeling that I never tire of. Lets say, it made all those blurry eyed mornings worthwhile...
"An Austerity On Shed" (September 2015)
Once the engine was off shed: fired up, checked, oiled and cleaned: it was over to you and the driver to make things happen. Maybe I'll revisit some posts and talk about driving and firing the line one day, but not in this one. Some drivers drove them like they weren't just hobbyists, but like they'd known the engines all of their lives and had some unusual affinity with them whilst others drove them with all the finesse of a house brick crashing through your front room window - everyone was different. Some drivers you could set your watch to; every movement and action, allowing you to fire accordingly and thus economically. Others seemed to think they were on a different railway each trip with some seemingly envisaging a King with 13-on topping Dainton Bank whilst the next trip would be a horse drawn wagon-way re-enactment at nothing more than 10mph. I personally liked the previous Drivers! All these recollections show though is that everyone is different and peoples varying perceptions of the steam locomotive create different actions. I've met some wonderful characters doing what I do and have many fond memories to show for it on some beautiful pieces of kit including the T9, the Black Five and the various Great Western examples...
"4141 Steaming Up" (March 2015)
Shackerstone, though its in the past for me now, offered a lot of learning and during my 8 years on the railway I drove and fired a lot of different types that I wouldn't have had the opportunity to otherwise. I hope you've enjoyed this unusual post which is basically a list of recollections to stop me from forgetting them in a hurry. Thanks for reading all, Sam...

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Sam, I enjoyed the "recollections" article, maybe you could write more of them in the future? Perhaps do one on each Railway, like one for Bala, Evesham, Ryton Pools, GEC, Statfold, etc...? Keep posting on your blog, lots of us enjoy reading it. Kind regards, Emma-claire.

Sam Brandist said...

Hi there Emma, good to hear from you. Glad you enjoyed the post - there are so many recollections from over the years that just don't fit into certain posts. Thanks again and catch you soon. If you like Miniature Road Steam I can recommend a very large gathering at the SBR in April...! All the best, Sam