I have to plead guilty to a climate change defying secret. The other day was spent at the North Yorkshire Moors Railway annual Steam Gala, a celebration of steam engines on the famously beautiful heritage railway in the North York moors. With beer tents along the way. There could come a time when heritage railways are the last big users of coal in the UK. God knows what will happen when coal sells for more per ounce than gold, or indeed when it ceases to be available at all. The nostalgia of these events can’t just be about steam engines—many people never experienced the original era of steam which expired in the mid-sixties. These fearsome machines now preserve memories of an innocent age, when little of what industrial society did was seemingly of much consequence and the nightmare of climate change was unknown.
As we were borne along in our still fusty smelling BR Mk. 1 carriages (the smell of old BR carriages never seems to disappear) through Levisham, Goathland and Grosmont it was hard not to notice that the vast bulk of passengers were all of a certain age. Being mainly pensioners I couldn’t help but imagine that most of them voted for Brexit and that somehow this kind of nostalgia trip would encourage them in their faith in the idea of a greater, lost nationhood symbolised by the best of our glorious heritage chuffing away at the front, the great British invention, the steam engine. This kind of nostalgia for a simpler time could, I thought, also be captured by the fact that despite gentle admonitions posted on carriage windows, fully 80% of the travellers couldn’t be arsed to wear Covid masks. Well, there wasn’t Covid in the 1950s was there? Oh, and by the way we’ve all been double jabbed so what’s the point?
But by way of light relief, at Levisham a tiny (by comparison) steam engine was shifting a few freight wagons up and down the track. This engaging little machine was called No. 8 Lucie, and whilst it was built in Britain in 1890, it went to serve tram services in Brussels (AARRRGGHHHH!). Brexiteers may have had to avert their eyes.
Those freight wagons at Levisham made me wonder. Why has nobody mentioned rail freight as a long term solution to some of our HGV distribution problems? Bring back the branch lines!