Fryer’s Flyers – MY DIRTY WEEKEND

Britain is well stocked with eccentrics. You can see them every weekend scurrying around on penny farthings, racing through sleepy villages in vintage rag-top cars, or charging up and down abandoned branch lines in billowing steam trains. The obsession with old machinery is hardly surprising – Britain was the epicentre of the industrial revolution after all – but an annual muster of heavy metal can only be described as obsession on steroids.

The Great Dorset Steam Fair is the biggest event of its kind in the world attracting more than 200,000 people every year. The event runs for five action-packed days and it’s one of the few places where heavy metal can shake rattle and roll in a smoke filled environment without fear of prosecution. But the steam engines on offer are not the familiar railway locos of childhood dreams and murder mysteries. These iron-age monsters are free to roam the public highways and they are a sight to behold as they thunder down the narrow country lanes around the sleepy little town of Blandford – the steamy epicentre for five days.

Free-range steamers come in a variety of different shapes and sizes. There are road rollers, tractors, trucks, ploughs, and even cars; in fact, just about everything that gets a heavy metal nut all hot and steamy. And for those who can’t live without a loco, there’s usually a chuffing great 120-tonne railway engine thrown in for good measure. But it will probably be strapped to the mother of all trailers and dragged around the 300-hectacre site by a team of ancient tractors – all steam powered of course.

016More than 500 live steam engines gathered for the annual muster in 2013. Machines from as far afield as Patagonia, South Africa and New Zealand converged to kick up a storm of smoke and dust. The event set a new world record for rollers with no less than 102 in a thundering convoy that surely rattled the Richter scales of Dorset. It would have been 103 if Lord Kitchener – a late-Victorian steam roller – hadn’t crashed into an historic 16th century pub a few weeks earlier. The unfortunate engine broke in two and the ancient pub walls suffered a serious blow. It’s not the sort of thing that happens every day, even in Britain, but local beer sales soared and the patrons enjoyed a barrel of laughs. (Thinks: Did they sing Roll Out the barrel on the day……?).

The wandering colonial missed that little morsel of excitement, but he wasn’t going to miss out on any fun at the fair. In fact, he had a steaming hot date with an old boiler from downunder.

Engine number 12063 was built in 1909 at the Fowler engineering works in Leeds. The general purpose tractor was shipped to Young in New South Wales where it was used to haul and cut hardwood logs. Like so many steam engines, it was abandoned and left to rust in an open paddock soon after World-War Two. The story may have ended there but for a chance encounter in the isolated outpost. After being spotted by a British steam enthusiast in 2004, it was shipped back to Blighty (Brits call this “repatriation”) where it ended up in the hands of Richard Vincent, a self-confessed steam nut from rural Somerset.

Richard is a no-nonsense character with a well-oiled boiler suit, a bit like the sort of bloke you’d find in an average Aussie suburb, although his Antipodean counterpart would probably be messing with big Macks (trucks, not burgers). Richard’s passion for steam eventually led to a full-time business dedicated to restoring ancient engines. Long-lost skills and antique tools were employed for the challenging work, but his hands-on approach ensures a steady flow of heavy metal for the workshop regardless of the economy.

It’s probably fair to say the old Young-Fowler is no show pony. You won’t find any polished brass or precious paint to care for, but it’s a well-fettled engine and more than willing to work. Of course, work is no longer a four-letter word for ancient steam engines these days. Most only get fired up for fun and they rarely leave their cosy sheds in winter.

So, what’s it like to drive a thumping great thug of a steam tractor? I have to say it was one of the most exhilarating driving experiences of my life, but to claim I was actually in charge of twelve-tonnes of heavy metal would be stretching the truth. These ancient machines require a considerable degree of expertise and at least two hours of preparation before they can even turn a wheel. Once mobile they require team work; there’s just too much going on for one person. My job was to keep the slow-motion projectile pointing in the right direction and avoid any collateral damage along the way. Fortunately, I had some help from Paul Taylor, a serious steam enthusiast from New Zealand.

The old Fowler already had a rip-roaring fire in the belly and a full head of steam by the time I arrived. The imposing mass of heavy metal rocked gently to a reassuring beat from deep within, and the huge flywheel turned with the effortless ease of an ancient steeple clock. Sizzling tendrils of steam caressed the well-patinated boiler and droplets of boiling water danced across the greasy pushrods as they plunged in and out of the well-honed cylinders with hypnotic regularity. The machine had a life of its own and I could almost hear it beckoning: “its play time, I’m ready………”

I responded by clambering up the hissing monster with a mix of iron-awe and trepidation which, as it turned out, was well founded. Before I had chance to settle in the beast kicked into action with a savage jerk and a snort of steam. Seconds later, we were trundling down a steep grassy hill at full chat in a cloud of smoke and dust.

013Of course, speed is a relative term in steam circles. The actual road speed may be low compared to modern vehicles, but the mechanical noise and action were extreme and exhilarating. I stood over the exposed rods and pistons as they pounded in and out with the urgency of a thrashing machine in the face of a storm. I felt like a conductor on a pedestal in front of a busy orchestra, but I had no control over the discordant mass of clanking of metal. That was Paul’s job and it was all music to his ears. Besides, I was focused on wrestling the heavy iron steering wheel which needed a significant numbers of turns to generate a surprisingly modest response at the front end.

I think I passed the test. With Paul’s guidance we managed to shake, rattle and roll around the crowded arena without incident, and I even managed to reverse park without spoiling anyone’s day. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for my expensive new shirt. It was covered in fine Dorset dust and spattered with polka-dots of thick black oil. Paul looked at me with a wry smile and I suddenly understood why well-oiled boiler suits are so popular in steam circles.

Did the old flue-sniffer have fun? You bet. I’ve already booked a dirty weekend for next year and I can’t wait to kick up another storm in the hills of Dorset. Now where did I put that boiler suit……..?

© David Fryer, the blight in Blighty. September 2013. (1280 words)

Footnote: Fowler Class R 6 nhp DCC, shipped 13th September 1909 to Sydney agent W. M. Noakes for H. G. W. Thackeray of Young, NSW. Lyall;1960’s McPherson’s Engineering, Parkes, NSW; Parkes Rural Museum; Allsop; Exported mid 2004 to Martin Bros; Simon Caldwell 2006; Currently Richard Vincent, Somerset.

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