Friday, September 05, 2014

steaming along

Thursday afternoon I re-entered one of my favorite cities -- London.

Most travelers would be regaling their listeners with tales of wonder after being here five hours.  Not me.

My adventures were of the commercial sort.  I headed off to Harrods to purchase a wing collar, single cuff formal shirt; some very specific underwear; a lens cover for my camera (don't ask); and a backup storage card for my camera (I told you not to ask).  Of that list, I now own a camera storage card (plus one for my telephone).  Items I could have purchased in Mexico -- and for about half the cost.

But no one likes to hear about someone else's shopping trip.  And I am not going to write about it.  Well, other than what I just did.

However, I have an interesting tale -- my last major trip with Julian on Wednesday.  He asked me if I had any interest in trains.  He wasn't aware that I have long been fascinated with them.  Not like the fanatic trainspotters, mind you.  More like a trainpeeker.

Powers, the little logging town where I lived off and on for the first eight years of my life, relied on trucks and trains to move the large tree corpses that fed my family.  The roundhouse was about four blocks away from our house.  My friend, Mike Pinson, and I would steal over to the yard to watch the diminishing rail operation.  An operation that would soon dissolve like gossamer mist.

So, I was more than pleased to accompany Julian on a visit to the Didcot Railway Centre.  It is quite a place.  There is a small indoor museum with all sorts of train memorabilia from the Great Western Railway.

But the major museum is outside.  Stretched across the wide grounds dedicated to the memory of primarily steam travel.

A couple of days ago I touched on the topic of how England's rivers allowed it to develop commercially.  Rivers have limitations, though.  They do not always extend where they are needed.  So, canals were dug.

The crane on the barge at the top of this piece is part of what is needed to keep rivers navigable.

This is what replaced the need for the river crane.

The steam engine came along just in time for the Industrial Revolution.  Or, a better way of saying that, is the invention of steam engines is what brought on the Industrial Revolution.  With track and steam-powered engines, new enterprises could receive raw materials from far away and then ship their finished goods even further.

The earliest market for trains were passengers.  Country gentry could now catch a train to London for shopping and lunch and be back home for dinner.

Those early engines and wagons often ran on extremely wide gauge tracks to provide a smoother ride.  To the modern eye, they seem more charming than practical.  But they certainly had their beauty.  To me, they look more like boats than wagons.

Quaintness soon gave way to the brute strength of the huge steam engines some of us can remember from our youth.  Such as this beauty.

The engine shed at Didcot is filled with perhaps a dozen of these giants.  All of them in varying states of repair.

Most of them have enough restored gadgetry in the cab to give a good idea what it must have been like to control one of these behemoths.  Control is the word.  For all of its size, the engine could only efficiently use about 5% of the chemical energy contained in the coal it burned.  About the same ratio a tungsten bulb uses in creating light from electricity.

It was not a job for a man (and, yes, they were always men) who did not want to get his hands dirty.  Between the coal dust and the grease, I imagine clothes soon lost any hint of their original color.

While the engineer and fireman were busy up front dirtying up their bodies, the British elite were being pampered in carriages that could easily be mistaken for a middle class parlor.

But this is no middle class carriage.  It was built in the late 1930s to transport members of the royal family.  A certain unpleasantness in Europe kept the car from entertaining the blue blood bottoms.  But it did see wartime service ferrying around members of the government.

Remember those diagrams when we were young predicting what cars would look like in the 21st century?  Flying cars always played a part.

Railroad inventors had similar fantasies.  I chuckled at this vision of a propeller-propelled carriage using the railroad's associated infrastructure.  It was never tried -- even though other fantastical ideas were.

It was the Victorian and Edwardian eras.  Where all things were possible.

That optimism was soon to die in the trenches of the Western Front.  Ironically, it was railroads that kept the forces on both sides of that unnecessary war well-supplied to slaughter one another.

Maybe that is why these railroad museums still exist and why we spend so much money on restoring locomotives that will never again take families to town on shopping sprees.  Maybe we are seeking what has been lost.  That sense that technology can be a symbol.  That things actually will be better.

I found myself walking through the exhibit getting as giddy as some children do at Disneyland.  Peeking into windows that allowed us to see something that may never have been.  But, we have the power to wish they did exist.  Nostalgia is funny that way.

And, in this world, that imagination may be good enough for me.  Knowing that the switches exist is hope enough that good people may one day actually operate them.


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