I sometimes wonder why I’m so beguiled, so utterly engrossed by the products of late Victorian engineering – the industrial tank engines, the shunting yards, the country stations, the narrow boats and traction engines. What is it about 19thC. iron and steel and steam that speaks so eloquently to my 21st century imagination?
It’s not any sense of attraction to some form of arcadian nostalgia. I really don’t wear rose-tinted spectacles. I recognise that the heavy industries that fabricated the steam engines, boats or factory machines were brutal, hard and harsh places, and that working class life was full of inequality and abuses, poverty and hopelessness. So no, it’s not nostalgia.
Nor do I have any kind of reactionary sense that a ‘return to steam’ would in some solve some of the ‘virtual’ and actually ills of 21st century life…
Perhaps, in the end it comes down to more prosaic things, such as my senses delighting in the animation of these mechanical wonders. The sensory overload of sight, smell, sound, taste and touch that the abstracted intricacies of a computer or smart phone circuit board could never match?
Perhaps it’s the explicit directness of the mechanical and physical processes involved in making these engines move that I feel a greater kinship with than with the hidden interconnections and enclosed wizardry found in more modern machines?
Perhaps it’s the passion and skill of the renovators and the restorers, with their utter commitment to resurrecting magnificent machines that sets my heart running?
I well remember helping (mainly by staying well out the way!) two friends replace a fly wheel in a steam road roller. It was an afternoon of chains and pulleys and delicacy, of grease, and sweat and engineering knowhow. It was a humbling, inspiring afternoon and at the end of it that mug of tea was a delight to drink as we savoured a sense of satisfaction at a practical, physical achievement, and a job well done.
I don’t mind if it’s corrugated iron buildings, shepherd’s huts, narrow gauge railways, preservation lines, historic boat rallies, antiques sales etc. etc. I’m fascinated by them all and always eager to learn more.
So as SLOWBOAT travels forward beyond its 1000th posts I suspect there’ll be many more posts celebrating the skills of the Victorian engineers and the heroic efforts of the amazing people who keep the machines going today.
Baring that in mind, I promised in a previous post that I’d come back to look again at living vans.
The living van, in contrast to the showman’s vans, were not primarily for living in permanently. They were more a means of allowing the ‘heavy horse’ crews to billet down when working further than commuting distance from home, with the van acting at various times as a canteen, dormitory, shelter, kitchen, storeroom and office wherever the traction engine happened to be working.