Trainspotting …

… not so much Irvine Welsh, more Jonathan Meades.  As a child,  Meades made lists: “Why were people called Salmon, Pike, Gudgeon, Whiting, Chubb, Grayling, Roach, Haddock, Spratt, Bass? But not Tench, Minnow, Eel, Lamprey, Perch, Carp, Huss, Plaice … I was adjudged tiresome or frivolous or time-wasting. Thus adults masked their ignorance and, worse, their incuriosity.”

I made lists too but mine were numeric, all of them attributes of steam engines, the occasional diesel and electrics but never multiple units.  We made lists to bring order to a chaotic, disinterested and judgmental world.  Trainspotting might seem harmless enough but to those in authority we were at best a nuisance, at worst dangerous. Eviction from railway stations was an occupational hazard; men of a certain age and ex-military rank, imagined or otherwise, simply didn’t like us and we them.

Dylan filled my head with verse, Raymond Baxter talking over grainy 405 lines inspired a passion for fast machines and steam trains spawned an interest in industrial archaeology, the remains of a revolution. Abandoned mills, derelict canals and the traces of long-gone railway lines still intrigue.  There must be others of a certain age who take delight in spotting the abandoned sections of the Lancaster Canal from the M6.

It was therefore inevitable that having ‘collected’ one example of the very fine signal boxes along the Newcastle to Carlisle line, I would have to go and ‘bag’ the other two award winning examples.  On Monday morning I rode the Ducati up to Wylam, stood on the footbridge and captured the last.  As a boy I would have taken great delight in being enveloped in steam by a train passing underneath – along with Castrol R, engine steam is the best smell in the world – Givenchy should bottle it.

In order of capture: Hexham, Haltwhistle and Wylam (the last is an extra of the best – Haltwhistle, stately as a galleon):

Hexham Signal Box ... Haltwhistle Signal Box ... Wylam Signal Box ...

... stately as a galleon

Castrol R

As we set off for the French Grand Prix at Clermont Ferrand in the July of 1972 one of our first lifts was in a Morris Oxford – my diary from the time records that it was from “a gentleman who was passionately reminiscing about the 1938 Donington Grand Prix, the Auto Unions and the Mercedes which smelled of boot polish and made your eyes water”. This olfactory signature came from the exotic fuel concoctions used to propel these fire-breathing pre-war monsters.  For me, as with most racing fans of a certain age, the smell that brings it all back home is inevitably Castrol R.  The name Castrol is derived from castor oil, one of the key additives to be found in Charles Wakefield’s original creation; indeed, it is the burning of castor oil that gives it and the race circuits of my memory their glorious and distinctive odour.  Castor oil has long been associated with performance machines and was a primary additive for aero-engines during the Great War; the silk scarves worn by pilots were not an affectation but were used to wipe excess engine oil from their goggles and also to prevent chafing of the neck caused by constantly looking over the shoulder for ‘enemy aircraft at one o’clock’.  Castor oil is also a very effective laxative which had dire consequences for the bowel movements of early fighter pilots.  I like to think that the smell of burning castor oil would have been as nostalgically familiar to my aero-engineer grandfather as it became to me.  Does this scene, with my grandfather stood third from the left in the foreground, have the unmistakable whiff of burnt castor oil?

AVro 504K

The above text is an extract from Golf in the Wild, due for publication in April 2014.  The aeroplane is an AVRO 504K which entered service in 1913 and was outclassed as a fighter soon after WWI started. Relegated to training duties, at which it excelled, it was in use until the 1930s. Before it ended its service career, the rotary engine was replaced with a radial, and it was re-designated the AVRO 504N.