“Time flies by when I’m the driver of a train, and I ride on the footplate, there and back again.” Chances are, if you’ve just sung this rather than read those words, you grew up on a diet of Chigley and you remember as fondly as I do Lord Belborough and his steam engine Bessie.
But until yesterday, though I’d been on many a steam train, I’d never experienced what it’s like to ride on the footplate. Thanks to train driver Michael and his sidekick Kim, whose role is that of fireman, I got to tick it off my bucket list. Stood between Michael and Kim, I tried to keep my balance and time my barrage of questions to avoid interfering with their safety checks and operational duties. With a carriage-load of passengers on board, even on such a short demonstration trip, it was important that things were done properly.
Teamwork was key, with both volunteers working together to ensure everything ran smoothly. It was hot work. As Kim stoked the firebox with coal, the blast of heat coming from inside was palpable. Kim wiped a smear of coal dust from his nose and grinned as I wiped the sweat from my own forehead. I was glad this was the museum’s 1905 vintage engine when Michael mentioned that had I ridden on the footplate of one of the other two working engines I’d have been much hotter, as the furnace would have been level with our faces instead of by our feet.
While it’s a special treat to ride on the footplate, the museum’s regular exhibits are well worth exploring. I began at the signal box where a series of colour-coded levers ensured a train couldn’t enter a stretch of track while another was in the way. The blue one shown in use here is pulled to activate a points lock, making sure the points don’t move as the train’s wheels pass over the top. Young kids will love pulling the levers so much it will be hard to drag them away.
Across the footbridge, the restoration shed gives you the chance to see some of the museum’s many engines and carriages being brought back to their former glory. Many of the volunteers work on these projects on Wednesdays, making this a good day to find out about what’s going on. There’s plenty of restored rolling stock to have a look at, including some vintage wooden carriages and recreations of station buildings and platforms.
The exhibitions in the on-site heritage centre explain the impact of Beeching’s cuts on the Gainsborough Line, which once would have continued on to Cambridge. Sudbury’s population grew sufficiently to save the Marks Tey to Sudbury stretch from the same fate. But other long-lost lines are covered too, including the Crab and Winkle Line which ran from nearby Kelvedon to the coast at Tollesbury. Take a walk around Tollesbury Wick and at low tide, you can still see the railway’s wooden sleepers disappearing into the mud.
EARM staff say that visitors often remark on how much there is to see at the museum and I’d have to agree. I made it through the level crossing gates back to the regular platform just in time to catch my train. You’re sure to have a rewarding and enjoyable day out. The volunteers were without exception keen to share their knowledge and enthusiasm.