It is a cool morning, refreshing after the heat of the week, and we are just outside Holt – a small market town, brimful with Georgian buildings in the far corner of Norfolk. We are at the station, now part of the North Norfolk Railway. It is a preservation line and we have come for the Spring Gala and a day of riding on steam trains.
This year it is the catchily named “BR Standard Gala”, with the focus being on the early years of British Rail, between nationalisation and the end of steam just twenty years later. Not that I would necessarily have noticed – this is my son’s area of expertise, not mine. He is able to recognise and identify the engines (“locomotives, Dad”) from their technical specification. I tend to go by the colour. It also means that my jokes go unappreciated. “Look at that lovely tender behind!”, just elicits a sad shake of the head. But whilst I am not what you would call a steam buff, I am most certainly a lover of steam. The sensual and evocative assault of noise and colour and smell, (oh the wonderful smell!), the associations and memories, the sheer sense of occasion when a steam engine hauls itself into view – it makes my heart soar.
It isn’t just me – as we tootle off through the Norfolk countryside (all rolling chalk hills here, with beautiful long vistas over fields and woodland, past churches and windmills, all the way down to the sea), walkers, golfers, cyclists, drivers of passing cars all, to a man and to a woman, pause and, probably to their own astonishment, find themselves smiling and waving. This doesn’t happen to the 7.52 to Kings’ Lynn, and for good reason – modern trains have no magic and they have no soul.
The usual crowd are here – the serious spotters armed with notepads and a bewildering array of cameras, filming and recording, jostling for the prime spots on the platforms, on bridges and embankments and, of course, that greatest of all pleasures (and one now denied to the modern commuter, hermetically sealed into their shiny compartments) – leaning out of train windows. There are old men accompanied by weary wives, capturing some essence of their youth or their own brief encounters, and young children accompanied by weary parents, brought up on Thomas and Toby. There is an army of people who look like they don’t leave the house very often, busily avoiding any eye contact, clutching cagoules and timetables tightly, there are the mutterers who, alarmingly, want lots of eye contact, and there are the hardcore afficionados, sneering and resentful at this intrusion of amateurs on their private passion.
There are people who are there for the magic and the wonder, there are painters, with easels and sketchbooks, holiday makers who have happened upon this by chance, a surprising number of people with dogs, saucy couples in their fifties who can only have arrived in an open-topped sports car (beep beep!), vast families, all eating ice creams, climbing over the seats, sticky paws on the windows.
And there is a new crowd – one that I haven’t seen before. Early to mid twenties, maybe a dozen of them, more even, that are a delicious mix of self confidence and self consciousness. They have an androgynous quality about them, fluid of gender and sexuality, boys and girls together. They look like gamers (or what I imagine gamers to look like), they hug when they meet, they are dressed in terrific clothes and they talk loudly – slightly too loudly, as if they want people to hear them. Like the steam-punks that attend traction engine rallies, they are the vanguard of something different – not just a new generation, but a new demographic, breathing life into these marvellous machines.
The sun is out now, catching on the brass buttons of the immaculate station masters – watch chains, walrus moustaches and polished boots. My son, in charge of the timetable, hurries me along – if we are quick, we can catch the double header into Sheringham for fish and chips on the beach, before a few more trips up and down the line. It’s after six when we finally walk to the car – we have been here for over 8 hours, exhausted, windburnt and happy.