For my 40th birthday, my wife bought me a driving experience at the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, one of my preferred lines.
I was able to go along on Monday 3rd March 2020. I booked some accommodation on site to stay over the night before and so I ventured down on the Sunday.
As I am wont to do, I left far too early and so had time to kill in Romney. I ended up exploring the coast, pretty much following the line.
Once booked in, I met the others in the accommodation: one like me and two railway volunteers. After a lengthy chat about numerous things we went our separate ways for dinner, which was a bit of a shame but I had some work to complete beforehand, so needs must etc.
We were up early and met in the cafe for breakfast and briefing. There were three of us in total and one coming along for the ride. We would take the driving in turns and we would get to drive from Romney to Hythe and then Hythe to Romney. When not driving you were a passenger, and since it was a non-public day we had the entire train to ourselves.
Our steed for the day was Southern Maid. We were shown round the fundamentals of controlling and firing an engine and then let loose. I was given first blood, as the youngest, and so drove from Romney to Hythe first and then Hyth to Romney on the second trip back. Our instructor gave direction as to what and when to do things and it was all very relaxed. One felt in charge of the engine but knew there was someone to take over if the need arose.
In some ways, driving an engine is easy. The principles are much like driving a car, except there is a regulator in place of an accelerator and direction is dealt with by the track. The regulator responds slower than a car’s accelerator, which took a while to get used to, but you can relax more since you can go hands free, unlike in a car.
Starting? You open the regulator, steam goes to the pistons and off we go.
Stopping? You shut the regulator and apply the brakes. Just need to time it right so you brake smoothly and roughly where you want to.
The hardest part was firing – you have to keep the fire going well and ensure a good fire all over. I have experience of running fires at home but it is really just about getting it going, put a pile of coal on and leave it. Here we had to maintain a nice level of coal and ensure fresh coal went where it was needed in the fire. Luckily, the instructor was on hand to supervise.
After two round trips we stopped for lunch – ham, egg and chips and jam pudding and custard – before heading out again. Since I had already had my two turns I was a passenger for the rest of the day.
At the end, we were able to tour the engine sheds and watch some of the work required to steam down the engine.
It was a enjoyable day, I learnt a lot and met some like-minded people. I would say the only real downers were that we were just left to leave at the end – no debrief, final cup of tea etc; breakfast was just toast (but it was limitless toast… and lunch made up for it); and we didn’t get involved in the steaming up process (although I believe that is part of a more extensive experience day).
I would heartily recommend anyone having a go. It’s a great present to get someone.