Sunday, 15 October 2017

A Battlefield Sunday On The Planets Favourite Prairie...

Today was another one of those days where you don't quite appreciate just how good it was until you try to write a blog post about it! This Autumn Sunday was spent aboard the Great Western 4575 Class No5542 at Shackerstone, in the company of David and Graham. I arrived at the gloomy gates of Shackerstone station at around 05:45, with David catching up with me soon after. After trudging up the drive to Platform 1 we signed in and read the notices before continuing through the darkness to the engine shed. As we opened the door the tell-tale heat emanating from 5542 gave the impression of a good warming fire the day before. Having placed our kit in the real mess area we began our checks on and around the locomotive. Sure enough, 42' had about 30psi on the clock, a full glass of water and the final remnants of her warming fire still crackling away in the box: another few shovelfuls yesterday and we wouldn't have needed any wood today! I removed the deflector and checked around the firebox, confirming the water level by gently draining the gauge frame. With all checks complete, I tossed a few shovelfuls of coal around the box and onto the glowing embers. We would have no need to rush ourselves this morning...
"06:00 - The Small Prairie Simmers Over The Pit"
Graham, who was to be our trainee fireman, duly arrived and covered the rest of the grate whilst I passed up some nice, dry wood. I then lit a good pile of oily rags on the shovel before tossing them onto the coal near the back of the box, adding a mound of wood on top. Doors shut and back damper open, 42' was soon crackling away happily. In the meantime I filled both the hydrostatic (cylinders and regulator) and steam brake lubricators. David meanwhile - headtorch affixed and looking like a lost miner - was going around the outside of the engine with the oil cans. By now the wood was blazing away nicely and more coal could be added to cover the flames. An hour or so later, following some cursing and energetic wrestling with the long iron, a full fire was achieved and steam pressure was climbing nicely...
It was all going well: the engine was nearly fully oiled, the needle was gradually climbing and we were still good for time. A minor irritation did rear its head though when I bent down to talk to David as he mountaineered up inside the Stephenson's motion between the frames and my backside caught an unfavourable light switch which duly plunged us into total darkness as the breaker tripped. I won't tell you what I said...this is a family blog! At this moment our 'Footplate Experience' chap arrived and I welcomed him before giving the usual chat about the course ahead and the locomotive we'd be using: "5542 was built at Swindon in 1928 as one of the 100-strong 4575 Class of Small Prairie tanks" so on and so forth. The participant then had the signalbox talk whilst I fixed the lights: "And the Lord said"...

With all ready, I drove 5542 outside into the morning air. I always warm the cylinders and steam brake before we move off, as is standard practise. If we had a vacuum engine we'd do a vacuum bag test and a reservoir test too. Descending through the point work into Platform 1, the participant boarded the footplate and was talked through the various controls and the relationship between Fireman and Driver. As this was a Gold 'Foot-Ex', the course would include two round trips to Shenton and back: one light engine, one with the rake of four passenger coaches...
"09:30 - Simmering At Shenton In The Drizzle"
Having returned to Shackerstone following the two pleasant trips, we did end up running late on the 11:15. The reason was unknown although there was a cake crumb filled plate in the Guards van...
David kindly allowed me to take the 11:15 whilst he "got his firing in early". Late but still smiling, we departed Shackerstone in a cloud of steam. 5542 is pleasant to drive. She's light on the reverser (piston valve you see), light on the regulator and responsive to all controls. Four coaches provides no strain for this super machine and she ticks merrily through the Leicestershire countryside without a care. Whilst I enjoyed the drivers view, David was busy talking Graham through all the reasons why his firing was better than mine. Down at Shenton, we ran the Small Prairie round the train and were joined by Batesy for the northbound restart...
"5542 With The Slightly Late 11:50 Train"
Returning to Shackerstone was just as pleasant. 5542 is a joy and you never seem to have a bad day with her. Back at Shack the engine was topped up with water at the column before being dropped onto the waiting 12:30 train. We would have just about managed to claw back the time but someone's tea was mashing...
I remained on the handle for the 12:30 run. By now Graham was firing under David's expert tuition...but lets not forget who taught David! Down at Shenton, Barbara kindly delivered the breakfast cobs to the footplate and my best camera efforts were once again focussed on the popular eating shots...
The valves were feathering as we awaited the "Right Away" with the 13:05...
We were unusually signalled back into Platform 1 road at Shackerstone; an honour only usually given to Santa Deluxe trains. 5542 is pictured whilst being uncoupled after coming to a stand and being made safe...
I later snapped David standing on the column wheel whilst the tanks were topped up. I like to think his expression portrays the thoughts in his mind: that he couldn't believe his luck being rostered with such a brilliant team...
For the 13:45 train I was on the fireman's side, trying my best to offer good advice to our trainee Graham. David meanwhile was on the handle and got 42' smartly on the move out of Shackerstone bound for Shenton...
The Prairie had been steaming well up to now - as usual - but the needle was becoming increasingly low on the gauge and seemed keen on 160psi and no more. Looking around the firebox I couldn't see anything wrong with the fire and this points to nothing more than clinker. The four previous trains had had good lumps of coal available but by now we were unfortunately shovelling muck from the bunker; mainly light dust and slack with the odd lump or two mixed in. Its a good job David hasn't got a blog as he would no doubt describe how his firing had resulted in the fine results of earlier today and that the coal quality at my disposal had nothing to do with it! I took over the firing for the rest of the trip and, having cleaned the fire at Shenton, the steaming improved on the way back. 42' normally steams on a candle and so when the needle hugs 160psi you know the fire is getting dirty. Having cleaned the fire again at Shackerstone and freed off some more clinker, the engine steamed like a dream on the 15:00, with Graham wielding the shovel and me supervising from the side lines...
5542 awaits the "Right Away" from Market Bosworth...
Down at the terminus the handsome tank engine prepares to run round her train as she stands amongst the sea of brown leaves...
The afternoon sun was just showing itself as departure time neared...
Graham had certainly learnt well from David as when I rejoined the footplate after coupling up a traditional 'David Column' was being ejected skyward from the chimney, the pressure was nearing the red line and all was well...
It was all quite pleasant and tranquil as we steamed through the countryside on this Autumn Sunday afternoon. Notice the pheasants flying in front of the loco...
5542 awaits the off from Market Bosworth...
We were soon on route back to Shackerstone through the trees which bring us out near Market Bosworth International Airport and its famous landing strip. In 10 years of volunteering here I've seen the plane outside once or twice being washed but I must admit I've never seen it in the air...
Arriving back at Shackerstone we'd got 5542 back on the ball: its amazing what a clean fire does for you, despite David's disdain for fire irons! As she stood on the column for the last time the Autumn sun was settling lower in the sky...
David suggested he drove to Shenton and I drove back: I was happy with that! Leaving Shackerstone with the four coach train, 42' steamed easily down to the terminus before a brisk run round for the final run home...
"17:00 - Awaiting The Final 'Right Away' From Shenton"
After a spirited homeward run through the quiet Sunday afternoon countryside, we pulled up triumphantly in Shackerstone's Platform 2 where the stock would be stabled until next required. Once uncoupled, I drove 5542 back to No11 point before continuing up onto the shed frontage once Graham had set the road. Here is a rare one for you: David with a fire iron in the firebox...
Whilst David cleaned the fire I jumped down quickly to grab this blurred image of 42' standing outside the shed door...
"18:00 - Resting Outside The Shed Before Disposal"
Once ready to back in, I opened the regulator and took 42' inside for stabling. Coming to rest over the pit, we set the drivers-side injector to fill the boiler. The fire by now was fairly dead with just a light, clean covering across the bars to keep her warm. The chimney cap was soon affixed and the cab fittings isolated where necessary. With the boiler full and the cab swept, 42' was left for the night as the three of us fell back into the real mess area for a wash up and a recap of the days events. All in all it had been a great day in good company: I always have a good day with JB or David. 5542 is a lovely old engine, no problem at all. Cheers guys, until next time, Sam...

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