In a wonderful time before mobiles and supermarkets, and even before Fred was known on television, I acquired a traction engine and an old battered living van on iron wheels. It was my great pride and joy and fulfilled a long-held dream of being able to chuff along country lanes leaving a wispy trail of smoke and steam filtering through the trees, stopping at little pubs, finding quiet spots to dream away the starry nights next to the warm stove, with a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs in the morning fried on the shovel in the firebox. It was real Toad of Toad Hall stuff.
Within a short time of getting the engine and sorting out a few minor mechanical problems, I enrolled "Mephistopheles", as it was called, for the big local 'steam do’ of the year, the Chelford Traction Engine Rally. I think l lived, ate and slept next to "Mephistopheles" for the first few days. It was the beginning of a big love affair and the neighbours must have got fed up with hearing the whistle every 10 minutes. The nice thing about traction engines is that everything is big and easy to get at and things fit together with a lovely clunk. The nuts are chunky and undo as if they are set in black treacle.
What a magnificent, gentle giant it was. I was always intrigued by the transformation from a cold inanimate big lump of metal to a warm friendly living thing once the fire was lit; its special little hisses and gurgles, the evocative smell of warm cylinder oil, arousing memories of the railway stations of long ago; the moving parts, all seemingly at odds with one another and going in different directions, yet working in magical unison.
At last the great day arrived. I was up at the crack of dawn to light the fire, steam her up and oil all her lovely bits. The red engine, incidentally a Burrell, was polished and burnished and ready for her very first appearance on the Chelford scene as she was a foreigner to these parts, being from Cumbria in fact, it could have been Westmoreland in those days.
The entrance for traction engines at Chelford (or Astle park as it was locally known) was down a long narrow dirt road that led to where all the engines and vans were parked in a big semi-circle. As the cream of the north western traction engine hierarchy would all be in attendance and as this was Mephistopheles’ debut to this esteemed gathering - and mine, too -I decided that this should be a grand high profile entrance!
The steam pressure was right up so she was blowing off at the safety valves with a jet of white steam shushing high into the sky and plenty of coal lobbed into the fire made sure she was belching out columns of black smoke, like a Black Five going up Shap. We made an impressive pass in front of the gathered steam fraternity, did a right turn and entered the enclosure, loudly accompanied - I must admit, only in my imagination - by a full orchestra blasting out The Entry of the Gladiators. Luckily, it was all done with a plomb and without a hitch... nobody lifted their or took the blindest bit of notice!
While reversing into a gap next to a green Aveling steam roller called Alison, the owner jumped down and guided me in, as the living van wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do. "Reckon you bloody deserve a trip to the beer tent after that, cock” he exclaimed.
Over a pint my new neighbour, the steam roller owner, leaned over and whispered hoarsely in my ear: "Let me give you a bit of advice, cock. A proper engine man coming here wouldn’t have shown the slightest feather of steam or smoke." With that he gave me a knowing wink. It was my first meeting with Fred Dibnah.
He had detected straightaway that I was an ignorant, brash, newcomer into this hallowed sanctuary of steam brethren and took me under his wing. I think what impressed him was that I had driven it all the way to Chelford as he had done with his roller and van, and we were both covered in black oil speckles and coated in coal dust. He mumbled: "Getting too rich
these engine men nowadays, who turn up with their engines on the back of swanky trucks." Back in those days he had a thing about engines turning up on trucks and low-loaders.
Roger's Reminiscences - Let me give you a bit of advice, cock
Copyright © 2011 Roger Murray