JUNE 2018 | Marguerite McNeill
THERE’S SOMETHING about steam traction engines that captures the imagination of most people. The ageing giants have a special charm that attract people from all walks of life and across generations.
The sooty smell, hissing steam and chugging engine spell a kind of romance that evokes images of a bygone era ... a time when man’s ingenuity challenged the power of a horse-drawn plough.
Nowadays, totally outpaced by modern smart tractors, the steam workhorses are regarded as prized relics of the past and generally only fired up for special events or just for fun.
But starting a steam engine takes a lot more effort than just turning a key; and maintaining the machines is dirty, tiring and time consuming.
It’s a job that keeps Hagley duo Bernard Boon and Paivi Sims absorbed for hours at a time. And they love it.
The working mechanisms of steam engines hold few surprises for 87-year-old Bernard who is a regular volunteer at Pearn’s Steamworld in Westbury. He has owned a 1912 Foden steam traction engine for more than 40 years (though not from new, as he once explained to a couple of interested youngsters. “They even wanted to know if I could do burn outs,” he laughed).
The only burning with that engine is keeping the firebox topped up until it reaches the optimal temperature for full steam and it’s not a job for any mean slouch. Reaching steam-up involves feeding in three quarters of a ton of wood and 500 gallons of water and takes around three hours. But it’s all in a day’s work for Bernard and Paivi who work together in complete harmony while pandering to the old engine.
“You can’t build up the steam too fast,” Paivi said. “It will cause cracking.” A much newer recruit to the magic of steam, 26 year old Paivi is in her element working around steam engines and hasn’t stopped smiling since gaining a license to drive the sturdy machines earlier this year. The intensive course involved a lot of online study, hands-on training and 250 driving hours. “It’s very strict,” she said. “You’re working with a pressure vessel and have to pass a standard boiler operation exam.” She is also up to speed on all-round maintenance.
One of just three women drivers in the state, Paivi’s enthusiasm is infectious. I just love it,” she said. “I love the smell and the way they move.”
As well as time spent at Pearn’s, occasional excursions further afield allow the volunteers to meet with other enthusiasts and show off their machines.
Paivi believes that steam engine drivers are one of a kind and said women are well accepted into the mould. “Go and talk to them, you can learn a lot,” she said. “We need more people to be interested (in steam), we need more of the younger generation to become involved.”
Photo | Mike Moores