The smell of a steam locomotive is a distinctive smell, it is the smell of burned coal, the smell of heavy engineering, the smell of a lost past. It is a smell that can be an expensive experience, now; travelling on heritage railways is not cheap.
Being someone who has no understanding of machinery, for whom the number of wheels on an engine and the type of rolling stock it pulls are arcane matters, there is nevertheless a fascination in following the course of long closed lines and imagining the activity of stations that have disappeared without trace.
There are moments when one stands and ponders the industry demanded in building such lines, the ambitious investments, the technical skills, the hard labour, the countless people for whom the railways brought work – and hope. Maybe hope was the most significant factor: expectations of wealth for investors, aspirations to become successful among entrepreneurs, access to markets for factories and farmers, jobs for those who were prepared to travel. The prospect of travel itself changed communities; shopping, excursions, even holidays.
Perhaps the railway relics in the landscape will be regarded by future generations in the way monastic and ecclesiastical ruins are regarded today, as artefacts of a society whose ways and customs were very different. Perhaps the archaeologists in centuries to come will excavate sites where stations once stood and ponder the lives of those who travelled from these places, perhaps children will stand in museums and watch hologram trains making sedate progress along cuttings and embankments.
Perhaps there is a deeper fascination in days following the course of redundant railways, perhaps it is about connecting with deep childhood memories. Perhaps the smell of a steam locomotive is about evoking memories of standing with my mother on the platform of Langport West station when not yet four years of age, waiting for a train to Taunton. Perhaps it is about sitting in my father’s car on the way home from my grandmother’s house in Yeovil and watching the level crossing gates of the station at Martock being opened to allow the passage of a train, and to discover decades later that the line closed in 1964. Perhaps it is about being at Weymouth with my uncle and aunt while I was very young and seeing a train travel the line through the streets of the town on its way to the station at the harbour where people would disembark to join a ferry for France.
Train smells are powerful.