What is it like to drive a steam train on one of England’s most scenic routes?
- Credit: Archant
The North Norfolk Railway, also known as the Poppy Line is one several heritage lines around the county, giving thousands of passengers a chance to experience the glory and romance of steam. STUART ANDERSON took a journey on the 'step plate' of one of their locomotives.
Steam blasts skywards, throwing a vale of condensed water droplets across my face as the mighty engine roars to life.
More coal is shovelled into the firebox, heating the steam to the point where the pistons and connecting rods turn the wheels - and we're off! The loco passes under a bridge and out into the bucolic north Norfolk landscape, through fields strewn with wildflowers and past groups of waving walkers.
The view opens up over the coast - taking in the windmill and square-towered church at Weybourne and out to the sea and ships beyond.
For Ray Webb, today's driver of the 107-year-old Class Y14 locomotive, it's the "best office view in the world".
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"It's unbelievable," he says. "I've always had an enthusiasm for the steam engine, I find it an incredible piece of technology - it kicked off the industrial revolution.
"It's machinery working, people being transported, all by boiling water."
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Mr Webb, 76, has been among the North Norfolk Railway's 350 volunteers for around 14 years, and has been a train driver for the past 10 of those.
The retired horologist - clock repairer - regularly travels from his home in the Suffolk town of Haverhill to drive one of the heritage line's 10 steam engines on the five-and-a-quarter mile 'Poppy Line' route between Sheringham and Holt stations.
"I came here in 2005 and they were just a brilliant outfit to be with, so I learned my trade on the railway," Mr Webb says.
He says the Y14 loco, which is puling trail of carriages packed with daytrippers, was built for the Great Eastern Railway at Stratford in 1912, the same year the Titanic sank.
A minimum crew of two is needed to man the loco's 'step plate' - a driver who operates the many cranks, levers and gauges, and a fireman who's in charge of the boiler and shovels coal into the firebox.
On this journey that's James Quinlan, 43, from Melton Constable, and they are joined by another fireman, Paul O'Brien, who is there as a backup.
"There was nobody to light the engine this morning so I just booked on," says Mr O'Brien, 67, from Hevingham. "It's an enjoyable day out and I just love doing it, meeting the public, showing them the engine."
Mr O'Brien joined the railway five years ago so he'd have something to do after he retired, and he says he enjoys the social element as much as anything.
"It's the camaraderie between the crews that makes it," he says.
"The whole thing revolves around safety, but we have fun. If you don't have fun there's no point doing it."
There are already people waiting on the platform as the train slides into Holt, where the locomotive detaches from the rest of the rolling stock.
The trio take the engine a little further before transferring to another track and bringing it back past the carriages to be re-attached at the other end.
The train then makes the return journey with the loco travelling back-end first.
It's a thrilling experience that I won't forget in a hurry, as I say to the railway's general manager, Andrew Munden, who heads a team of 50 full-time staff.
Mr Munden says the railway's sheer scale is what surprises visitors most, extending beyond its already packed programme of events and estimated 155,000 passengers a year.
The railway has an annual turnover of £2.9 million, with much of the business fuelled by repairs and restorations of locomotives and boilers from across the country and around the continent.
"We've got a centre of excellence here that they haven't got in Europe," Mr Munden says.
"It's great for the economy of the county."
-Among the many special events taking place at the railway are a vintage bus rally today (July 6) and a vintage transport day on Sunday (June 7). For more information, visit www.nnrailway.co.uk/special-events.