The vandalism at Ruddington’s Great Central Railway, Nottingham, eight days ago seems to me particularly cruel and mean-spirited.
The heritage centre, run entirely by volunteers, had 112 windows of its old rolling stock smashed, with the damage estimated at £80,000. I know the place well and it is full of smiles, and I joined scores of people on social media sites to denounce the attacks. I am shocked, upset and angry.
Against the odds, the centre opened on May Bank Holiday with the steam train running the route into the Wolds of south Nottingham.
There was destruction on a larger scale recently when Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was badly damaged by fire. The difference between the two is that millionaires have queued up to fund the cathedral’s restoration. Barring a miracle, there will be no huge cash injection to back up the hard-working and dedicated volunteers running these train services.
These kind enthusiasts are the people who allowed my dad to travel on the footplate of a steam train for his 80th birthday. I shall never forget the moment when he carefully climbed down from the engine wearing his inevitable jacket, shirt and tie. He had soot on his face and was grinning from ear to ear. I saw the boy in him that day.
My dad went to war in a carriage being pulled by a steam train, leaving our Victoria train station to travel to his RAF base in Lincolnshire. My childhood in Mapperley had night-time echoes of the shrill steam train whistle as it thundered along the line from the city north to Newark.
But for people who do not remember those times, the regard, wonder and love of steam trains is still there. Expectant families wait in the cold on that exposed rail bridge in Rushcliffe Country Park to see, hear and smell the steam engine as it trundles past beneath their feet. Kids on the swings can’t resist looking up to gaze at the spectacle.
That age of steam seems to be right there in the British psyche. Maybe it is because we all yearn to go back to those uncomplicated times when milk was delivered to our doorsteps and you bought your pick ’n’ mix from Woolies. Or is it because a steam train is so much like a living thing, a dragon breathing fire, gasping, whistling and grunting, the embodiment of a grumpy old man. It is a machine, but it seems alive.
Whatever the reason, there is a lot of love for them, and for the volunteers who work in all weathers to restore them. The recent vandalism made the Ruddington crews even more determined to pick up again. Let’s hope they shrug off their disappointment and carry on their good work.
Published May 5, 2020