After All - On Manx and Australian trains

An Isle of Man steam train ride brings back memories of Australia

One undisputed gem of my ever-growing collection of antiquarian travel books is 'Observations of the European People' by Samuel Laying, Esq, published in England in 1850. It starts with a colourful description of the author's cross-Channel journey on an early paddle steamer: 'What a world of passengers on our steamer! Princes, dukes, gentlemen, ladies, tailors, milliners, people of every rank and calling, all jumbled together. The power of steam is not confined to material objects. Its influences extend over the social and moral arrangements of mankind. Steam is a great democratic power of our age, annihilating the conventional distinctions, differences and social distance between man and man as well as natural distances between place and place.'

Replace 'steam' with 'the Internet' and you'll have a pretty adequate description of the latter. Indeed, the social significance of the early steam engine was on par with that of our own world wide web. Call me a retrograde but I often feel nostalgic for the golden age of steam.

Luckily, there is a place where I can satisfy that steam passion of mine – the Isle of Man, famous for its still functional (i.e. carrying daily commuters, alongside train buffs and tourists) Victorian steam railways.

The present 16-mile track from Douglas to Port Erin is a reminder of a railway network that once served the whole island.

The first stretch from Douglas to Peel was opened on 1 July 1873. Despite lots of bureaucratic fretting about the political and moral dangers of rail transport, narrow-gauge railways developed quickly on the island; at its height, the Isle of Man Railway Company empire extended to 46 miles of track, with a proud fleet of 16 locomotives, around 75 carriages and dozens of assorted wagons.

The red-brick station building in Douglas had a distinctive 19th century ambience. Inside, there were wooden floors, a tiny coffee shop, an old clock and a ticket window. A handful of my fellow train buffs were clicking their cameras while boarding The Manxman – our little train. CH Wood, a minuscule, almost toy-sized, engine, was spitting out clouds of vapour and puffing loudly, as if chronically short of breath. The platform smelled of coals and steam – the semi-forgotten aroma of my childhood journeys.

The engine gave a high-pitch whistle, the conductor slammed the door shut – and the train started with jerk.

The carriages were equipped with window straps, wood panels and gas lampshades, now covering electric bulbs. 'Keep your head, arms and legs inside the carriage,' the brass plate above the window warned. I always suspected that all superfluous warning signs like this were compiled by one and the same person: a short, bald and extremely boring fellow, a retired tax inspector and a secret graphomaniac. Having failed to publish any of his tedious writings, he resorted to creating warnings and instructions, thus having his revenge on the whole of humankind who had failed to appreciate his talents.

The compact carriage brought back memories of my trans-Australia journey by the Indian Pacific Express some years ago. The ride across the red-hot Nullarbor desert took three full days, and my first-class compartment was a masterpiece of practicality: everything in it bent and folded. The washing tub, the sleeping berth and even the toilet were all collapsible. It looked (and smelled) like a medium-size snuff box without tobacco, and I could hardly squeeze myself inside with my suitcase.

Instead of tobacco, my snuff box was filled with ominous-sounding signs, warnings and instructions on how to flush the toilet and what to do in case of fire (another masterpiece from the short, bald, boring writer – 'point one: tell the conductor and other people').

Trying to lower the sleeping berth, I faced a dilemma: the compartment could accommodate either the lowered berth or myself, but not both of us simultaneously. I eventually went out into the corridor, lowered the berth through the open door of my compartment and quickly leapt onto it, slamming the door shut in my flight.

To use the loo, normally covered by the berth on which I slept during the night, I had to: a) leave the compartment; b) lift the sleeping berth from the corridor; c) enter the compartment; d) use the loo; e) leave the compartment; f) lower the sleeping berth back into place; g) leap onto the berth from the corridor, shutting the door in my flight (see above).

It was great fun and I hardly noticed how all 70 hours of the journey went past, for even without calls of nature, sleep was hard to achieve: the tiny snuff box on wheels was brimming with the sounds of constantly vibrating objects, and each vibrated with its own distinctive pitch and tone. The water glass was clinking in its metallic holder; the Diet Coke was rustling inside the can like surf; the door hinges were squealing like two old trams turning the corner; the teaspoon in the glass was jingling like a conductor's bell calling the second shift of passengers to the restaurant car for dinner. Even my trainers, stuck according to instruction (a brass plate saying 'Shoes') in a tiny dark closet in the wall, were rubbing against each other and making a muffled clattering sound.

Another high-pitch whistle of the tireless CH Wood brought me back to reality and made me realise that I had just re-visited Australia without leaving the Isle of Man – the never-ending magic of steam. Samuel Laying, Esq. would have liked that, I am sure...

Watching the island's pastoral scenery floating past the window, I made notes in my jotter. Tiny black specks of coal landed on the page from time to time like fossilised fragments of the bygone, yet still reachable, technology epoch. *

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