Hi. Some years ago, my partner, Bryony Doran, (‘The China Bird, Bookline & Thinker Press, see link from my site.) sort of coerced me into making contact again with an old school friend, Michael. Now when i say an old school friend, this is a guy I lost contact with 37 years previously but never stopped talking about. When we were between six and 12 years old we used to hang around together getting into all sorts of mischief and also train-spotting.

It turned out that Michael had continued with his love of steam trains, eventually making a good living from Railway Memorabilia and other items of antiquity and had moved to South Wales. I contacted him through Friends Reunited and this is not, I hasten to add, an advert for that site, but it was a useful tool in this regard.

Mick came up to Sheffield on a three monthly basis to attend an auction of railway ‘stuff’ and we had been surprisingly proximate in those visits but never coincided. He now stays with us on a regular basis although the auction has since moved down to Derby. Eighteen months ago Mick suggested that we travelled to Poland to try out ‘The Wolsztyn Experience’. This is a facility where you can be taught to drive, fire and clean out live, working steam engines. We made the arrangement and last September we set of for Wolsztyn, via Wroclaw airport thanks to Ryanair. I for one had little idea of what to expect. What we found was exceptional, wonderful and gratifying.

The first good news was that the Polish people are polite, understanding of foreigners, good-natured and very happy to show/discuss their homeland with you. So many spoke very good English that we came away with having learned little of Polish except thank you. (But don’t ask me to spell it!)

We overnighted in Wroclaw and spent next day there. The centre of the city is ancient, with areas unspoiled by the wars that have ravaged the country in the last centuries. The buildings are gracious and tall and the interiors of the churches are decorative almost beyond belief. Wherever we went the food was good, cheap and plentiful, evidence that the EU has not yet penetrated Polish society fully with its poisonous tentacles of uniformity.

From there the journey to Wolsztyn was a quite bland drive of lorry-dodging on well-surfaced but single lane roads for most of the time. There is only one motorway in Poland and I can assure you, we were not on it. Without mishap we arrived in Wolsztyn to find a hidden jewel of a town. The outskirts appear at first a little functional but as you move into the town proper it becomes a touch more quaint, with buildings of historical significance, famous artists, doctors etc. By the western edge of town, it is bordered by two beautiful and completely unused lakes that were crying out for a host of small sails, the slap of dipped oars or even the putter of engines. Where the town meets the lakes there is a small ‘promontory’. Almost pier-like, with a large circle of seating at the end, this juts out perhaps a hundred metres into the water. Because the entire western half of the town is covered by a free wifi broadband service, it was possible to sit out there surrounded by water, swans and late September breezes, answering emails on my iPhone.

Promontory at Wolsztyn

As part of the Wolsztyn Experience our accommodation was provided in Howard’s(the organizer) house on the outskirts, yet only ten minutes walk from the station. The accommodation was rudimentary but clean and adequate and a catch-as-catch- can breakfast was available or even a cooked one if you ordered it previously. We ate out. We were given shift times. The train from Wolsztyn to Poznan ran twice a day, the journey of approximately 55 miles taking two and a half hours (or longer if we were driving). The train times were 5.25 a.m. and 1.25 p.m. I can tell you that the 5.25 a.m. train came as quite a shock to my system but as it turned out it was the best shift of the two. There are few things as dynamically dramatic as driving a steam loco in the pitch black pre dawn.

Dawn Firing

Dawn Firing

Our first shift was on the 1.25 p.m. train, thankfully. Howard took us down to the station and introduced us to the crew of the afternoon shift. These were extremely genial guys who spoke almost no english and whose expressions left us in doubt as to what they thought about our capabilities. After half an hour I discovered why. Mick and myself are quite small guys, and the controls of a 140 ton, 1953 steam locomotive are meant for someone a touch larger and heavier than ourselves. So much of it depended on throwing your bodyweight at the levers and wheels that I was glad the diet hadn’t worked quite as well as it should. The crews seemed huge in comparison with ourselves. The shovel held about a quarter-hundredweight of coal in one scoop (until you’d learnt not to be greedy with it!) and seeing these guys wielding it around without a thought made you realise how sedentary we have become. The first time you hit the firebox door with an overloaded shovel and spray coal all around the footplate is cause for a display of combined hilarity and despair from the Polish crew, but once they see that you are prepared to clean it up properly and thoroughly, their attitude towards you begins to change…
We ran four shifts over the week with a break, inbetween the second and third, of a day. On that day we took the car further north to see Hitler’s Bunkers, an incomplete complex of finely crafted subterranean tunnels that run for 18 kilometres along the old Russian border with Poland. These tunnels are now home to Europe’s largest roost of bats. The temperature in these tunnels is a constant 56 degrees Fahrenheit (Proper money) and therefore shelters them all winter.  They were beginning to arrive in late September and we found small numbers of them clinging to the roof of the tunnel as we walked. The tunnels were unusual in that the rooms were complete with radio stations, flamethrowers with hugely deep fuel resources, cannon, and machine gun emplacements set amidst 55 miles of solid concrete tank traps on the ground above. The fact that they left a road running through the centre of it down which the Russians drove their tanks beggars belief, considering the lengendary organisational capability of the Germans, but perhaps that was also ‘propaganda’.

As we became used to the engines, the controlling of same became easier, and also the crews became used to us. They knew what we were (and were not) capable of and eventually allowed us to drive through areas where we were supposed to move over to allow them to take charge. Misplaced emotion or not, I felt this to be a great honour.

There are four main things to state about live steam locomotives. They are Noisy, Smelly, Hot, and Damned Hard Work… but there is a fifth… they are also wonderfully alive with a seemingly patient intelligence. Here is the inanimate made animate. Forget Shelley’s Frankenstein and his poor monster. This is what he would have made had he been a man of more pure vision. Even their ailments,  we encountered one or two, and remember, these are 56 year old engines, seemed to be human… sticking valves… misaligned joints… the very same arterioscleroses and arthritic complications we ourselves encounter. There is no doubt left in my mind as to the epithet given of …live steam.

I will write more on the Poland trip later but for now I have posted pictures and downloadable video of the trains on the site under ‘Wolsztyn Experience’. Enjoy.