Customer Feedback from the Steam Experience Day

The following was written by "Robin" one of our Steam Experience Day customers. It is reproduced as it was written apart from some corrections of formatting errors induced by transfer to different software.

My Experience

My first contact with Willow Wren Training was met with the message: "Sorry the course is full, would you like to be contacted should we offer another date?" Disappointedly I agreed and gave my details and promptly forgot about it, obviously not for me.

Months later a call "would you like to come on a course at the end of September?" That's more like it. "Yes please....my long number? Thank you and pasties for lunch would be most welcome, with brown sauce!" I added a bit cheekily.

I arrived at the wharf a little early and saw three gentlemen chatting by a narrow boat with a funnel, good I'm in the right place. One of them made a beeline for me introducing himself as the "owner ". I've never been good with names but better with first impressions and he was warm in his greeting, reminding me of a headmaster, clean shaven, could be stern but had a twinkle in his eyes. His welcome gave a feeling that this course would be good.

By this time the other two had come over and we were all introduced again, the slim gentleman with unruly grey hair, beard and glasses under a baseball cap with coal dusty jeans  held up by both belt and braces and wearing oil stained boots had to be the" engineer". Still waters run deep I thought.

The other gentleman had a jolly looking face with a large bushy beard and keen looking eyes. On his engine man's hat was a badge saying “Driver” that left me in no doubt!! (or had it belonged to Reg Varney!?"He was sporting large braces and a large brass buckled leather belt holding up large black trousers he was no stranger to the odd pie and a pint! I thought.

All three of these gentlemen had handshakes of Do-ers.  I'm going to rub along well I thought. I must get belt and braces!!

Down an awkward iron ladder, polished from constant use, I find myself standing facing a wood and brass bound boiler covered in a bewildering array of pipes and valves with "engineer" beside me and the others peering down through the two hatches. Opening a small door in the bottom "Engineer” says “down on your hands and knees”......three thoughts collide, I should have told them of my pending knee opp, why did I bother to polish my boots and oh gawd not some public school type initiation! But to my relief he continued.......and put eight shovels of coal around the edge of the grate, put this flaming paraffin soaked rag in the middle and cover it with this pile of wood (kindling) and place carefully on top two more shovels of coal. I stood up.......three more thoughts collide, I have just lit my first boiler fire, a smouldering enthusiasm has just burst into flames and I'm still "Virgo intacto" at least in that department !!..... The day is getting better all the time.

One of faces in hatch says "now for the safety lecture". We cross the lawn up to a timber building with a veranda and enter the training centre, a light airy room with purposeful exposed roof trusses, tables and comfortable chairs arranged cafe style around the room, the latest in presentation equipment,whiteboards with coloured pens and a computer controlled projector  and some screen I didn't recognise, all a long way from a slide machine and a blackboard with chalk!!

Cups of tea and biscuits are offered, but I have a dread of lectures, I fear I may fall asleep and start talking .The safety talk is brief and to the point, little icons representing the topics to be taken heed  of......we used to call it "common sense".... Water is wet and fire is hot and if you don't hold on while climbing a tree you will fall out!!

Having appeased the "H and S. Deity”.  "Driver" delivers a fascinating insight into the creation of "Adamant”.....truly amazing what can be done with a cutting torch and an adjustable spanner......long live back street mechanicking!!

"Engineer" pops his head around the door and says "five minutes, OK?"  I'm thrust pen and paper, "Oh could you just sign this?”.....next of kin? ....I will take care of any damage I may cause? Blimey how will explain to Fi (my wife) that we are now owners of some sunken steam boat or worse still she is!!!?

Before we return to the boat "owner " produces a container a cross between a motorway service area dish for keeping bacon lukewarm and a Victorian soup tureen and hurriedly takes it into the engine room muttering pieomatic or something !?

Back on board, what was previously a cold lifeless piece of metal had become a symbol of potency, the little padlocks jingling on the safety valves as they start to lift, the needle on the pressure gauge nudging the red line and "Engineer" says "open the fire door and put on a couple of shovels to cover any thin places in fire and close the damper". My little pile of flaming sticks had become a bright orange mass of heat turning all the water we had previously filled up with to steam....wonderful!

"Open those four drain cocks there just to your left”.....can't see the engine for steam, there’s an all pervading warm smell only associated with steam ,a smell so satisfying that it's akin to that first mouthful of a first pint !...."right close them, that's to warm the engine through and get rid of any condensation".

Suddenly a doorbell rings three times!? "Ah that's standby". Engineer points to a set of communication instructions taped to the bulkhead......one ping, slow astern, one long ring full stern, two short pings slow ahead, etc, this has got to be what Mr Morse discarded when he was designing his code?....,....

Then came the doorbell again, one short ping, help ...” put that lever towards you, that's reverse, towards me, that's ahead" ......the lever is a miniature version from the signal box in the Railway Children!!

So I push the lever away from me and Phil( for that's his name) opens a throttle valve a little ,the engine now clear of steam starts to move ,all its parts going up and down and round and around glistening with that oil that helps give steam that distinctive smell. Two pings, one ping the pings are coming thick and fast now......what did they mean? I put my glasses on to read the instructions, they instantly mist up and mild panic is rising within. Phil senses this and calmly says "push your lever to me”..... Thank you.

All that activity was a sort of a six point turn .......two short rings ,followed not so hurriedly by two long rings meant that I could push my lever to port and open the throttle valve a bit more.......to show say three bar on the engine gauge. We were now heading along the canal......phew!

Phil now calls me over to the boiler and instructs me in the importance of the water glass......."on no account must the level fall below the glass" he stresses, on the boiler is an arrangement of pipes and valves called an injector, by opening a steam valve and two other cocks......there's a sudden whoosh of steam in bucket at my feet!.....

Phil says "look carefully at the glass and you will see very slowly the level rising" The boiler filling itself!! This is indeed a black art.....one day I'll take and hacksaw to that fiendish device and find > out how it works!!!

Two short pings......three pings.....turn off the throttle valve, means we are stopping .I go topside and discover we have come to an halt in entrance to an old lock, "Driver" starts to explain canals!" the Internet of their day, one horse could carry say two hundredweight of coal along rutted tracks uphill and down dale, whereas with the canal the same horse could pull twenty tons of coal along the level," that was a major leap! "So canals fed the industrial revolution and that led to more canals.

In behind those trees and bushes Driver continues “there's a complete factory chimney still standing where there once was a cement works”.....thankfully hidden from any of Dibner's disciples..... “What’s that triangular wooden construction lying there in the undergrowth?" I ask. "Ah that's the front end bottom up of an old narrow boat, they used to sink them in the old locks to get rid of them, I've seen as many three one top of each other!! ......."Driver" is a fount of canal knowledge, my choice for the pub quiz!

"Right back on board " says Steve......to save myself from my dyslexic embarrassment I've devised a cunning plan ,by looking out through the forward hatch I should be able to predict planned bell commands.....this might be just the ruse!!......yep it is working, the ping comes through just as I thought and gives me just enough time to sought out the lever movements.......no one is the wiser!!  ......the following three point turn goes without a hitch...... I think I've got one over on Mr Morse......thank you!!

"Robin would you like to take us back up through the lock?" Says Steve. "Yes please" says I........ Oh sh#%....I'll be in charge of this s****g bell.....not such a clever move?!! "Right, get in the steering hole” says Chris ("Driver's" name) "and put the helm to port and give two pings"...........we glide into the lock. "When you get level with lock gate give one ping and then..... Wait.....now three pings. That wasn't so difficult?!"......we come to a halt just in the right place (away from that dreaded cill) The lock fills up and off we go....two long rings......after much fumbling to find the bell push?? "Get back into the steering hole" says Chris......this is to become his mantra!!

We glide back to base and through a tricky manoeuvre (some boat owner has left his engine running in gear and created a strong cross current) we moor up for lunch. "Mustn’t forget the pieomatic" says Steve, we all settle ourselves to eat. The road chef /Victorian tureen revealed four perfectly cooked pasties, utterly delicious ....despite no brown sauce!!.......so that was what was concealed inside the smoke box?!

More tea and cake..... This was when I let them in on my proposed project ....it seemed well received with lots of questions .......this was indeed encouraging. Steve produce photos and maps of a cement works, it was enormous!! "That was just there” he said, pointing to a large flat mound behind the Centre "It was demolished and bulldozed flat filling in the canal arm, but there are plans a foot to open up the arm" .....That would be very exciting, an archaeological dig at the same time.......Steve is a man of vision.

Back on the boat, Helm or engine I'm asked, "Helm please" it's too nice an afternoon to be below! "Steering hole” Chris reminds me.......half a century of sailing where you stand beside the tiller is an hard habit to break, my boat will have a wheel!!! .....but he explains and has a very valid point.

What gorgeous weather, we cruise in near total silence, the faint clack from the water pump barely audible.
Once I found the bell push, controlling the boat began to make sense ....this was truly wonderful. We passed friendly faces with cheerful waves, particularly a pretty blonde in on a beautiful boat who muttered something about a Pimms on the way back!!

Things were just getting better and better. We entered a flight of locks with another boat...I congratulated myself on bringing Adamant to a halt alongside without a bump, this was not without Chris's input!

Steve who was up for'ard put his hand up with a calm urgency..... One long ping, I feel the propeller griping the water and we slowly come to a standstill.........that was close, a boat was coming across the junction..... Thank you Steve!

Several pings later I've turned the boat around and we are returning back to base......back down the locks again doubled up. Just as we were leaving one chamber a very long boat shoots out from behind some moored craft. "T#*t" utters Chris, "that's going to need some sorting out". And like an orchestral conductor ,Steve is directing boats hither and thither and Chris tells me to hold my position ,stopping the gates from closing an preventing another boat descending and causing more havoc......it all gets sorted and we get under way ....this type of boating can get a bit complicated !!

We silently cruise for home passing towpath trees laden with apples, walkers picking black berries and the pretty blonde with the beautiful boat but sadly no Pimms!!  .......huge Dragon flies abound and a terrapin all enjoying this warm afternoon "What ways the wind blowing?" Enquires Phil "I'm going to blow out me tubes", and with that dark smoke billows from the funnel and we continue. Throughout our trip much use was made of the steam whistle, no real reason but to give pleasure to passers-by!!

A bit more pinging we turn the boat around in the arm and moor up......can't remember how many pings there were for "finished with engines". ....Phil briefs me on shutting down and I have a very informative chat about boilers for my boat.......his enthusiasm really is infectious and he kindly gives me his e-mail address saying he will help me in my quest if he can...... Very kind.

We all shake hands and say our farewells ....Steve hands me a framed certificate......wow......I'm not sure what I've done to deserve this......"thank you".

These are three very bad men for they have injected me with the industrial revolution's equivalent of heroin and I'm now hooked!!!.......I'm euphoric!! As I leave my euphoria is intensified as I realise my onward journey will not be controlled by “A front door bell”!!!

A happy day ....thank you all.      

Many thanks
Robin