Another of Roger Murray's everlasting supply of Fred stories centres on an incident that he remembers followed a drive from the West Country.
While travelling back north with Fred one evening after the pair had been looking at a ploughing engine, they decided, not unreasonably, to stop at a pub on the way back. This one was on the edge of the Cotswolds and was a lovely old stone-built coaching house type of place with, as Fred commented, 'plenty of posh cars parked outside.
We parked the car and entered the pub and it wasn't long before the people at the bar were lifelong friends. As the evening wore on, a rather vocal, tweedy lady invited us back to meet her husband at the hall where they lived just outside the village, as he had a big steam engine. So off we went with half the pub in attendance.
We drove through some imposing gates and along a dead-straight drive lined with trees, which seemed to go on for miles up to this big stately pile at the end. lt was some hall! Her husband was charming and made us very much at home with large lead-crystal glasses of his favourite malt. I explained that l was driving, but they insisted that we stay the night. Their man would prepare a couple of rooms for us.
Then it was into the library to see the engine. lt was a model of a very ancient locomotive in a big glass case. I think it was a five-inch gauge and it was about five-foot long with the tender. Richard, our host, explained that it had been built for his grandfather, who was a director of the railway company and he used to have it running round the grounds of the hall. Fred closely scrutinised it and announced: "l bet it would still fire up."
Richard's eyes lit up: "Do you really think it would? lt would be wonderful to see the old girl in steam again."
"Oh yes, let's do it," exclaimed his wife clapping her hands. Without further ado we gently lifted off the indignant big ginger cat, which had been sleeping on top of the glass case and about four of the accompanying pub customers then carefully manhandled the engine and tender on to the polished wooden parquet floor.
"Have you any coal, love?" enquired Fred. Within half-an-hour the coal had been produced and reduced to little lumps, the boiler had been filled, the moving bits oiled and, with the help of some firelighters and the lady of the house’s hairdryer, the library was now a haze of smoke as the little fire crackled away with its smoke being sucked up the chimney of the green locomotive.
"lt won't blow up or anything?" inquired a now slightly apprehensive Richard.
"Of course it won't, darling. Dodo used to play with it and steam it up when he was a little boy," announced his wife. l took it that Dodo was their son. Fred placated him slightly by saying that we wouldn't get it up to full pressure, just enough to make it turn the wheels. We had supported the engine slightly with two bits of wood so the driving wheels were just clear of the floor.
We had all been so busy chatting and drinking our malt as Fred was explaining how he put pit props under chimneys; accordingly we had failed to notice that the locomotive's pressure had built up very quickly. Suddenly there was some very pronounced hissing as the safety valve blew off. "Bloody hell," said Fred, "it steams up well."
With that he went and sat astride the tender and blew the whistle. The ginger cat went berserk and with its tail all bristling, ran up the big brocade curtains. Fred then manipulated the little reverser forward and opened the regulator. The locomotive's driving wheels suddenly whizzed round at an alarming rate under a cloud of steam, it came off the supporting pieces of wood and charged off across the floor with Fred trying to hang on to it. "l can't stop the bloody thing," he yelled, "the regulator's come off."
The locomotive ran on to the carpet and across the imposing room amid clouds of smoke and steam and screams of "Stop it! Stop itl" from her ladyship. Fred, who had fallen off the back of the tender, was still clutching the tiny regulator lever, tried to chase the engine across the room. The frenzied ginger cat was now virtually running round the walls making an unearthly yowling noise.
The engine hit the bookcase at the far end of the library with a resounding thud, demolishing a set of polished wood library ladders. Although it was now halted and jammed against the bookcase, the pistons were still pounding away and the driving wheels still whizzing round and tearing the thick, and obviously very expensive, carpet into big lumps, which were flying everywhere. lt was like an out-of-control combine harvester.
Everybody was shouting and running round, her ladyship was screaming "Oh my God! Oh my God!" The place was thick with smoke and poor Fred was doing everything he could to stop the little monster of a thing. I think he finally pulled the reversing lever back.
Fred explained that everything happened so quickly and there was so much hot water and steam everywhere with the regulator coming off, he couldn't get his hands in to control it. Needless to say, we didn't stay the night. We stayed at the pub instead as the landlord felt it was the most hilarious thing that had happened in the village for decades.
Roger's Reminiscences - His Lordship's green locomotive
Copyright © 2011 Roger Murray