“Time flies by when I’m the driver of a train, and I ride on the footplate, there and back again.” Chances are, if you’ve just sung this rather than read those words, you grew up on a diet of Chigley and you remember as fondly as I do Lord Belborough and his steam engine Bessie.
But until yesterday, though I’d been on many a steam train, I’d never experienced what it’s like to ride on the footplate. Thanks to train driver Michael and his sidekick Kim, whose role is that of fireman, I got to tick it off my bucket list. Stood between Michael and Kim, I tried to keep my balance and time my barrage of questions to avoid interfering with their safety checks and operational duties. With a carriage-load of passengers on board, even on such a short demonstration trip, it was important that things were done properly.
Teamwork was key, with both volunteers working together to ensure everything ran smoothly. It was hot work. As Kim stoked the firebox with coal, the blast of heat coming from inside was palpable. Kim wiped a smear of coal dust from his nose and grinned as I wiped the sweat from my own forehead. I was glad this was the museum’s 1905 vintage engine when Michael mentioned that had I ridden on the footplate of one of the other two working engines I’d have been much hotter, as the furnace would have been level with our faces instead of by our feet.
Whatever your age, there’s something special about a trip to a railway museum and the chance to see a working steam engine. If you’re reading this and nodding your head in agreement, then I’d recommend you visit the East Anglian Railway Museum at Chappel and Wakes Colne. While riding on the footplate was a special treat, visitors will sometimes be able to take advantage of the museum’s “Taster for a Tenner” promotion where you can learn how to drive a diesel loco for just £10.
This summer, Greater Anglia are making it better than ever to travel by train. For a number of attractions across East Anglia and London, the East Anglian Railway Museum being one of them, presenting your rail ticket gets you 2FOR1 admission. If there’s just two of you, Greater Anglia’s advance fares will also keep your costs down. For larger groups, check out the Group Save tickets, a good deal for families and groups of friends looking for an affordable day out. Even better, Group Save can be used in conjunction with the 2FOR1 offer. With rail tickets for children costing from just £2, arriving at the EARM by train makes a lot of sense. Chappel and Wakes Colne station lies between Sudbury and Marks Tey on the pretty Gainsborough Line. From Marks Tey there are frequent connections to London’s Liverpool Street as well as Ipswich and beyond.
I chose to time my visit to coincide with one of the EARM’s regular special events. The 1940s Vintage Tea Dance marries our nostalgia for the age of steam with a love of music, dance and reminiscing about the war. Headlining the event were the fabulous Fox, Wiggle and Sass. Perfectly co-ordinated in red polka dot dresses, hair coiffed in immaculate victory rolls and lips painted a perfect scarlet, the girls had the Forties look down pat.
Aimee (Fox), Amy (Wiggle) and Gemma (Sass) hail from what they term the Bermuda Triangle of Essex: Layer de la Haye, Finchingfield and Witham. Over the last four years, they’ve been hired for countless weddings and private parties, but coming back to the EARM is special as it was the first gig they ever played. This talented trio made performing the harmonies and melodies of iconic Forties classics like “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” and “It’s a Good Day” as well as swing hits like “Sing Sing Sing” look simple.
Watching them perform was a full house – or rather goods shed – of people, many in 1940s costume themselves. Servicemen danced with WVS volunteers while onlookers sipped tea from vintage china and ate cream teas. Sharon from Swing Jive Sudbury was on hand to teach everyone the basics so even complete beginners could join in the fun.
Also in the goods shed, Bunty Bowring had laid out a fascinating collection of 1940s vintage clothing, showing how in times of rationing, make do and mend were of vital importance. Together with husband Richard, who was dressed as one of the Home Guard, she shares her passion for all things wartime by giving regular talks to various local organisations. Outside the goods shed, meanwhile, members of the Suffolk Regiment Living History Society had brought their rifles, kit bags and even their trucks and The Viaduct mini-pub was open for those wishing to sample the local beer.
The event had been fun, but to leave without exploring the museum’s regular exhibits would have been a travesty. I began at the signal box where a series of colour-coded levers ensured a train couldn’t enter a stretch of track while another was in the way. The blue one shown in use here is pulled to activate a points lock, making sure the points don’t move as the train’s wheels pass over the top. Young kids will love pulling the levers so much it will be hard to drag them away.
Across the footbridge, the restoration shed gives you the chance to see some of the museum’s many engines and carriages being brought back to their former glory. Many of the volunteers work on these projects on Wednesdays, making this a good day to find out about what’s going on. There’s plenty of restored rolling stock to have a look at, including some vintage wooden carriages and recreations of station buildings and platforms.
The exhibitions in the on-site heritage centre explain the impact of Beeching’s cuts on the Gainsborough Line, which once would have continued on to Cambridge. Sudbury’s population grew sufficiently to save the Marks Tey to Sudbury stretch from the same fate. But other long-lost lines are covered too, including the Crab and Winkle Line which ran from nearby Kelvedon to the coast at Tollesbury. Take a walk around Tollesbury Wick and at low tide, you can still see the railway’s wooden sleepers disappearing into the mud.
EARM staff say that visitors often remark on how much there is to see at the museum and I’d have to agree. I made it through the level crossing gates back to the regular platform just in time to catch my train. Whether you time your own visit for an event day or not, you’re sure to have a rewarding and enjoyable day out. The volunteers were without exception keen to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. Best of all, taking the train instead of the car gave me the chance to mull over what I’d seen and done. My verdict: I’m going back – and next time I’m taking a 2FOR1 friend.
With thanks to Greater Anglia for courtesy train travel to and from the museum and to the East Anglian Railway Museum for a great day out.
Greater Anglia’s offers
East Anglian Railway Museum
Fox, Wiggle and Sass
Richard and Bunty Bowring
Suffolk Regiment Living History Society