The characters in my new novel make two railway journeys, including one from London to Southampton at the start of their journey to Egypt. Wanting to experience riding on a steam train, to have a better feeling of what it might have been like for them, I went for a trip on the Bluebell line in Sussex.
The trains depart from Sheffield Park station, beautifully preserved right down to the penny-in-the-slot loos in the Ladies. The Bluebell line runs for nine miles along a preserved stretch of the old London Brighton & South Coast Railway. Historic steam locomotives are still in use, run and maintained by volunteer enthusiasts.
Some of the engines in the museum are enormous, quite forbidding, and give an insight into why some people feared both train travel and the rapid expansion of the railways that occurred in the mid-Victorian period. Plumes of both white steam and black smoke stream out from the coal-powered engine as the train travels, competing with the clouds.
It was instructive to hear the steam whistle; they’re always described as ‘mournful’ and it is an eerie, lonely kind of sound. Also to feel the erratic motion of the carriages, quite different from the gliding sensation you feel on an electric train.
An unexpected bonus was the early advertisements nailed to the palings on the approach to the station. This first one is my favourite.
Thanks very much to Mike Goldwater for taking the pictures!
More information on the Bluebell Line here.