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The heat in the cabin of a steam locomotive is uncomfortably intense; it’s so noisy that I have to strain to hear the instructions of the driver who's less than a metre away, and my face and hands are coated in soot.
This is the Kent & East Sussex Steam Railway, a strip of heritage track running 10½ miles between the picturesque Weald village of Tenterden and Bodiam Castle in Robertsbridge. It is open to the public for both pleasure rides and driving courses and is maintained and run by volunteers. It is a real labour of love: everything takes time and effort, from tirelessly shunting backwards and forwards to attach the carriages, to climbing down onto the tracks to manually work the signal gates with heavy levers.
I am surprised at how physically demanding it is. The average age of the volunteers is probably 60, but charismatic driver Howard thinks nothing of hanging off the side of the train as we speed along, and fireman Martin cheerfully intersperses shovelling coal into the raging fire with puffs on his pipe.
These guys love it. It's the life-sized realisation of every young boy’s treasured train set. When I arrived at Tenterden in the morning, I couldn’t have imagined a more archetypal group of train enthusiasts to greet me: from Howard and Alex in their grubby boiler suits and flat caps, to Peter and Mark the signalmen.
The railway is incredibly popular during the summer, and the New Year's Eve event, where passengers are served a six-course silver-service meal, is booked up three years in advance. But with one ton of coal costing £200 and the team easily burning through several during one day, the cost of a day at the railway can stretch into the thousands.
If they could run on enthusiasm alone, signalman Peter could probably keep them going single-handedly.
On the weekends, the tracks will be busy with hop-on-hop-off passenger trains and the luxurious Pullman carriages serving lunch on the move. Signalling mistakes could be devastating, so a serious approach to safety needs to be upheld all the time. A train with a full set of carriages takes 100 metres to slow down. You really don’t want to be making emergency stops.
The chuff chuff of the train is one of its most appealing features, as is the sharp hoot of the whistle, which makes you jump every time. For the first journey I am in the brake cart, the carriage at the back of the train. But it is only when I get onto the footplate in the front cabin to take my turn at firing and driving that I realise what all the fuss is about. Heaving the coal into the fire pit, the skin on my face tight from the heat, I feel like a hundred years have slipped away and I’m a toiling Victorian worker.
Then I swap over to the driver’s position. Using both hands I pull the regulator, a big lever in the centre of the cabin, and we’re off and I’m in control of 100 tons of train. With my head sticking out the side of the cab, the early evening sun low over the fields and the steady chuff, chuff, chuff of the train as we rattle along at 25 miles per hour, I’m having so much fun.
I honestly didn’t expect to enjoy learning to drive a steam train so much, but when I clambered out of the carriage after guiding the locomotive through the golden Kent countryside, Howard tells me he doesn’t need to ask me if I’ve had fun because I had 'a silly grin on my face the whole time'.
• For information on Pullman dining, Christmas and Halloween specials and regular timetables on the Kent and East Sussex Railway, please see kesr.org.uk