This saturday found me gazing at the rolling fields and leafy vistas of the Sussex countryside as they slid sedately past the wooden framed window of my carriage aboard a steam train on the Bluebell Railway.
At the invitation of a trainspotting friend I rose unspeakably early to arrive at Kingscote, a charming, restored 1920s station, nestled in the countryside at the head of the Bluebell Railway. Surrounded by mostly elderly rail enthusiasts we presented our tickets to a dapper station attendant and found a place inside one of the beautiful old carriages. Predominantly wooden and smelling the way an old country house does, of musty upholstery and old furniture, the carriage was a million miles away from the sterile plastic commuter trains that carry me, sardine-squished and grumpy, to work and back every day.
As the train got underway, we admired the ornate fittings and thrilled at the bare lightbulbs in the carriage ceiling which glowed when we entered the line's only tunnel.
The journey itself was around 20 minutes long and took in three equally picture postcard stations (but no stops at Hogwarts much to my disappointment). Each of these harboured a bustling collection of stalls exhibiting or selling all manner of historical rail paraphernalia. Wandering amongst rows of faithfully recreated model engines, dusty books and fading VHS testamanents to obsolete rail routes it was fascinating to pick up snatches of conversation from hobbyists who spend long hours faithfully recreating bygone scenes in miniature, and those who actually lived and worked in them.
Many faces held wistful expressions and even my own sense of nostalgia was stirred at photos of the trains that raced past the end of the garden of my childhood home.
A brief interlude at the first station, Horsted Keynes, afforded us a closer look at the beautiful engine that had been hauling our carriage along the tracks. Examining the gleaming brass funnels, elegant ironwork, and bright, hand painted decals I could understand my friends admiration for the craftmanship that had gone into building these mechanical marvels. Each part not just functional but designed and moulded to add to the overall beauty of this steam driven work of art.
Huddled at the end of the line, and with no other signs of civilisation nearby, a small collection of sheds, a shop and a village pub surrounded the last station. Behind the main building stretched a graveyard of brooding rusted hulks. Giant tenders and corroded iron carcasses loomed over oil blackened ground, their hollow, bulky shapes reflected in dark iridescent puddles. A skeleton crew of enthusiastic volunteers, many of them retired engineers, tinkered with carriages and engines in various states of disrepair, picking their way back and forth amongst piles of jagged, decaying engine innards. The air was filled with the smell of solvent and coaldust. My friend soaked up every detail of the scene and was overjoyed to find a shed where a new steam locomotive was being lovingly assembled from scratch.
After a relaxing sojourn in the pub serving ales with names such as "Bluebell bitter" and "Old Smokey" (I wondered what had happened to the "Signal Failure" and was tempted to ask if they had any "Leaves on the tracks" on tap), it was time return on the last train.
After paying the extra supplement requested by an immaculately dressed guard for accidentally sitting in a first class carriage we were off.
Pulling into Kingscote I watched, amused, as my friend gleefully pulled chunks of unburnt coal and ash from his hair, collected while his head was stuck out of the window for most of the return journey, and it was hard not to feel some of his childlike enthusiasm.
It's wonderful that people still work to preserve such authentic slices of vintage life but I couldn't help wonder if, with the passing of the generations who lived and worked in said times, these recreations will gradually disappear, leaving just old black and white photos and museum displays as the only way to experience them. On the strength of this day out alone, I really hope not.