Unwanted steam

Four vehicles ahead, a large green tractor was moving slowly, its orange hazard lights insistently emphasising its presence. It seemed odd that such a modern tractor was moving so slowly, on country roads they can sometimes reach speeds beyond which it would be unsafe to drive. Stranger than the slow progress of the tractor was the pall of smoke it seemed to be leaving behind it. It would have been a poor investment by someone to have bought such a machine and then to allow it to burn oil at such a rate.

As the line of traffic came into a right-hand bend, the reason for the slowness and the smoke became apparent. Ahead of the big green tractor was one of greater antiquity, a black steam tractor being by two men very active in its control. Around the corner, a gateway allowed space for the steam tractor to pull over and to allow the traffic to pass. The big, green tractor raced ahead up the road, as if to make it clear to other drivers that it was not responsible for the delay.

It is the season of gathering for traction engines, and steam rollers, and vintage tractors, and miscellaneous other vehicles from past decades. Participants in the steam rally in our village this past weekend will move onto other events next weekend.

The machines at vintage vehicle rallies up and down the country are testimony to the extraordinary levels of commitment of those who drive them. Some of been through years of painstaking restoration, all of them demand many, many hours of maintenance. To bring a vehicle to a rally is no mean feat; it frequently demands considerable time and expense. It is easy to wander along a line of engines or tractors and not to give a second thought to the commitment required for a vehicle to be present.

Yet, while admiring the beauty and the craftsmanship of the vintage machines, and being pleased that the delay on the road was not caused by anything so mundane as a big, green tractor going slowly, but was due to a vehicle worthy of note, there is an awareness that the very reason these vehicles survive only as relics of a former age is that they were not wanted for daily work. They were slow and cumbersome and difficult to use and limited in their mobility. As soon as Fordson and Ferguson and Field Marshal appeared, the days of steam and iron were numbered.

The speed at which the big, green tractor moved away was, perhaps, a metaphor of the fate of the steam engines.

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