Like most young boys I owned a train set or two, loved watching Thomas the Tank Engine and dreamed of one day becoming a locomotive driver.
Of course, as I grew up my interests changed and that dream, much like the dreams of playing for Sheffield United or being Batman, were replaced by more realistic ambitions.
But on Friday last week I was given the chance to rekindle one childhood dream at Nene Valley Railway, near Stibbington, when I took control of the £3.3m Tornado locomotive on a driving experience day at the heritage site.
This was my first visit to Nene Valley Railway, and as soon as I arrived I was transported back to days pushing a Brio train around a wooden track. Visitors are greeted by the old-fashioned signal box and historic station buildings, which then give way to a train yard full of old locomotives and carriages.
The railway offers a range of driver experiences, where people can get behind the controls of a variety of historic steam locomotives. But this month they have a particularly special attraction in the A1 No 60163 Tornado, a brand new engine which made its first journey in 2008.
I was on the first ride of the day alongside David Band, a Whittlesey farmer who received a Tornado driving experience day as a present from his children for his 70th birthday. David and I were given boiler suits and protective gloves before getting a beginner’s guide to steam locomotives from Terry Lee, one of two volunteer loco inspectors working at the railway that day. Terry, a long-time railway enthusiast, explained with great passion the inner workings of the huge machine we would later be driving.
We were soon chugging along at a steady 20mph and, with my head out of the window to get a good view of the bottle green locomotive in front of me, I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.
After comparing the locomotive to a kitchen appliance - “it’s fundamentally a kettle on wheels” - Terry set out the mechanics before warning us of the dangers. He said: “When I first started the manager said to me that I must appreciate this is a bomb waiting to go bang. If you got it wrong you won’t be around to see it. You have to treat it with respect.”
Naturally this filled my head with images of next week’s front page headline - Reporter Blows Up Stibbington - but Terry assured us we would be fine. We were taken to the platform and introduced to Peter Richardson and Jim Gosney, our driver and fireman for the day.
In such a complicated machine it’s vital these two people work together: one feeding the engine with coal and regulating the amount of water rushing through the “kettle on wheels”, the other controlling the steam regulator and brakes, and both looking down the track for signals and potential dangers.
We took turns giving each role a try as we travelled to Peterborough. David was first to drive, so I picked up the shovel and started to feed the huge furnace right in front of the cabin. We had earlier been told to assume everything in there was red hot, so I was grateful of the safety gloves as I tried to spread coal evenly across the fire bed through an opening the size of a household oven door. I only did the job for about 10 minutes and still worked up a quite a sweat, so I quickly got respect for the firemen who used to run the locomotives all day when steam power was in its prime.
Having managed not to set myself or anyone else on fire, I then got the chance to sit in the driver’s seat. I was faced with a display of levers, dials and handles unlike anything I’d seen before. Visions of the famous Gare Montparnasse derailment, where a locomotive driver entered the station and crashed through the wall onto the street below, filled my head, but driver Peter gave me a reassuring word and after putting the train into forward, releasing the break and easing on the steam regulator - and giving a loud blast on the whistle - we were off.
I couldn’t quite believe how easy it was to start this huge machine. As soon as I pulled the regulator to release high-pressured steam into the three pistons, the gigantic wheels started turning and the needle on the speedometer eased upwards. We were soon chugging along at a steady 20mph and, with my head out of the window to get a good view of the bottle green locomotive in front of me, I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.
We carried on to Peterborough, giving the occasional whistle blast at crossing points and slowing down for the odd bridge or two, before coming to a gradual stop at the platform. The brake, incidentally, is smoother and more responsive than the one in my Peugeot 207, which was a huge surprise.
David and I swapped jobs for the return journey, which was slightly more complex as the engine had to go backwards, and I chatted to Paul and Jim about their work. Both are big railway enthusiasts and are clearly happiest on the footplate of a locomotive, surrounded by hot metal, steam and smoke. They work with smiles on their faces and help make the experience unforgettable.
As a final treat we were taken up to the signal box, where former general manager Mike Warrington gave us a detailed history of the railway.
I left covered in soot and sweat but grinning like a Cheshire cat and transported back to my childhood.
Nene Valley is holding a special Tornado event this weekend. Visit www.nvr.org.uk or call 01780 784444 to book or to find out more information.