11 June 2009

Steam meet

Every summer, especially around where we live now, you'll notice temporary signs posted along the countryside roads that read something along the lines of “Steam Meet - Wibbledons Cross 11-12 June” or “Steam Fair & Craft Show Here 1-14 July”. These are announcing gatherings for enthusiasts of steam-powered vehicles. The majority of these are traction engines, essentially rail-less steam powered machines that are used to haul loads across the ground.

These devices predate the internal combustion engine and were an early attempt at replacing the draught horse. The UK provides a home for a disproportionate number of the remaining traction engines in the world, and apparently fanciers of the same.

The steam meet is an interesting phenomenon. Often held at park grounds or some farmer's field, the meet consists some concessions, craft booths, a bouncy castle or other attractions, and a few rows of neatly arranged and meticulously maintained steam vehicles, all idling away apparently to prove they still work.

It's hard not to be impressed when you see these things for the first time. The appearance is overwhelmingly that of a free-range old-time locomotive, complete with smokestack and big rear wheels. The similarity ends with many of these things, however, when you notice that instead of a cab for the engineer, there's simply a single seat (at least on the smaller ones), and it hits you that this is essentially a steam-powered tractor.

The two things that stays with you, however, are the smells and the heat. These machines are almost all running, pouring out smoke rich with the smell of burnt oil. You need to make a constant effort to maneuver yourself so that you're not downwind of the smoke plume, as the smoke is quickly overwhelming. Not as easy to avoid is the heat, that is, unless you're happy to observe at a distance. These things are all huge boilers on wheels, and the heat radiating from them is impressive. Form a few lines of them and you can get evenly browned just walking down between the rows.

Our first encounter with one of these things wasn't at a meet; it was through the windows of the first house we lived in here. One weekend day I heard the unlikely sound of a steam whistle right outside, a somewhat odd occurrence since we lived in the countryside nowhere near any train tracks. Looking out the window toward the road, I was able to spy over the hedge what appeared to be a steam train, moving very slowly down the road, and carrying a couple of passengers on a platform at the back. Of course, this elicited one of those subtle “WTF!?” responses that we Americans are known for whenever we're confronted with something outside of our realm of experience. By the time I fetched Lisa to have a look, it was gone. But it would return from time to time, usually pulling a cart full of brush that had been cleared off to be burned somewhere. I'm embarrassed to say that wasn't until our son was old enough to start watching Thomas the Tank Engine that I found out what I had spotted.

Who says TV isn't educational?

1 comment:

  1. Hi

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