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A generational love of steam

19 September 2018

It is four in the morning, on a blustery dawn at Leeds Bradford airport (where there is no such thing as non-blustery days) and I, a small 10 year old girl, am about to go on my first airplane. Now, for anyone else, this would have been an exciting time, but the idea of hurtling at speed through the clouds in a metal can did not appeal to me. One of the reasons was this was a post-9/11 world, and I was absolutely certain the same fate was going to happen on that flight. Another reason was that my mother's crippling fear of flying, which had meant we'd usually driven to our European destinations, had also been instilled in me. After a freezing week in the ironically named Costa del Sol, I never went abroad with my family again, which (aside from the odd school trip) basically trapped me in the UK.

Now before you all play the world's tiniest violin for me, I am aware of how lucky I am to even be able to go on holiday. As my mother, a one-woman 'Four Yorkshiremen' sketch, would constantly remind me, a lot of people did not have the privileges I had when I was growing up. But in all honesty, I never really felt that I was missing out on much. Whilst my friends were all flying off to far and exotic lands, I was quite happy to trundle around the UK. Why? Because of my dad.

My dad was born in 1932. The British Raj was crumbling, but still chuntering along, Adolf Hitler was just gaining power in the German Reichstag, and steam trains were the only way to travel around the country. He would talk about the times he'd travel by steam to visit his family members in Wales, or when, at Christmas, it was a treat to take the train down from Yorkshire to London, go to Harrods, and pick out a Christmas toy, one of which he still has today. It was amazing. The stories were magical. I always wanted to be part of them.

In writing this blog, I messaged my father to ask what my first steam train journey was. His response was, verbatim, 'Not sure. North Yorkshire Moors? Ravenglass? The one in Northumberland? The one in France? The one at Windemere?' I remember precisely none of those train trips, which tells me that a love of journeys pulled by a steam locomotive was instilled upon me from a very young age. It also tells me I've travelled on far more trains than I thought I had.

The first steam train journey I actually remember was when I was 6, and it was the West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William. I don't remember much, admittedly, but one lasting memory which has turned out to be one of my earliest memories, is seeing a stag in all of its glory as we crossed Rannoch Moor. It was amazing - the seats my family were in were tartan, the curtains fringed the slightly warped windows, and the backdrop of the turbulent highlands framed this Stag, fully facing the train and on a rock as if it were posing for us. If it weren't for my mother saying 'my god, it's a real life Monarch of the Glen' which my family still mock her about today, I'd have thought it was a scene from a film. Or Monarch of the Glen.

I actually managed to do the last leg of the West Highland Line this year on my annual family holiday. 'It is for work' I lamented, 'I'm only doing this because I have to for work'. I didn't have to go on it for work. I went on it purely because I wanted to live out my Harry Potter dreams. I just wanted to seem aloof and cool.

However, my favourite steam train of all time will forever be the Strathspey Steam Railway. I have been on it every year for 18 years and I'm yet to be bored of it, and that's because not only is the scenery incredible, but because of the memories I have attached to it. Like the time my mother, brother and I were cycling to Boat of Garten, and I fell off my bike (I threw a tantrum) meaning I had to get the steam railway back to Aviemore. Or the time we couldn't see a thing because of Scottish mist, yet the antics of the sheep still had us all in hysterics. My family have had a lot of happy memories on that train, so it holds a special place in all of our hearts.

Today, I have been a lot of places in the world. I'm lucky enough to live in a time when the world has become very small, and my fear of flying has lessened somewhat, even if it has lessened because I've become rather fatalistic about the whole thing. No matter where I go, however, nothing will beat riding along the rails with my family, listening to my dad reminisce about the days of yore when steam trains ruled England, and enjoying the beauty of the entirety of the UK from a view point that I've never been able to match.