Sunday, 8 November 2020

Fire in the hole

Usually come October, the GWSR is completing its final few running days of the main season before temporarily shutting down to prepare for Christmas. Initially the plan had been to navigate through a November running season, but the new lockdown scuppered those plans. However, the GWSR is continuing to plan for its Santa season come December, when hopefully it will be full steam ahead once again. Steam, of course, needs fire and as luck would have it (thanks roster clerk) all three of ‘team blog’ were scheduled for stints at Toddington a few weekends ago to provide this very necessity. 

The autumn sunset reflecting on Toddington signalbox 
For me personally, this was my introduction to the noble art of warming fires, with Tom and Luke as my mentors for the respective shifts. Any long-term readers, or members of the steam department who lurk in the background, this will likely be familiar territory to you, but for me it was day one (and two) of taking the next steps in becoming a fireman.

Building the fire in 7820
It turns out that building a warming fire is significantly easier when the tools you’re using aren’t sabotaged, namely the dustbin used to clean ash out of the smokebox which, it turns out, had a hole in the base. Inattention when removing it from the pits leaves you cleaning up a dust trail as long as it took you to notice and deposit it in the closest wheelbarrow (potentially decorating yourself as well as the floor, depending on how you prefer to carry these things). For anyone watching, it is quite a source of hilarity!

Dustbin safely deposited
One of the fun bits of learning is watching how everyone does things slightly differently and then building up your own technique. Tom had been particularly looking forward to the Friday evening turn as he was getting a chance to fire what he calls the ‘correct way round’. As someone who fires left handed, standing on the right hand side of the footplate makes his life significantly easier, even with a grate the size of 35006. My time on the shovel so far is minimal and I do not yet have a preferred side to stand on, although my GWR background very much believes the ‘correct way’ to stand is on the left hand side.

Tom building up the fire
After the initial build, it’s a waiting game to see whether your fire actually takes hold or if it’s going to fizzle out and you need to enact plan B. Thankfully, our ‘passing time’ tea breaks proved successful and we had something coming out of the chimneys when we returned. A few more rags, bits of wood and more than a couple shovelfuls of coal and both 35006 and 7820 were warming themselves up in the chilly, late October evening.

There’s a fire in there somewhere

Good signs!
Due to the proximity of finish and start times between some of my shifts, I’m becoming very familiar with the accommodation pods at Toddington. My Saturday was supposed to be spent riding the cushions from the comfort of the brake coach on Train 2, and keeping a watchful eye on the coupling process. As it happened, that didn’t quite go to plan, but staying overnight meant we were able to pop back to the engines late on Friday evening and double check things were progressing as they should. As it was a bright and still evening, this also meant the light was pretty good for some aesthetically pleasing photos; we wouldn’t be very good bloggers if we passed this up!

Someone with more photoshop proficiency than I could edit those steps out… 

The moon rises over 35006

We neglected to bring marshmallows due to covid restrictions
Despite being rostered for my other department on the Saturday, I popped into the yard to see how the fires had lasted and was mightily pleased by the fact they had apparently turned out very well (I should take this moment to point out the excellence of my tutelage). Despite the weather, we were all in good spirits and looking forward to a day (for me, a half day) pootling up and down the Cotswolds.

My turn to be the overseer
And then something went bang. That something turned out to be the steam heat bag, which decided to knock out a (thankfully unimportant) secondary pipe to the tender in the process. Not much is quite as stressful for a Guard as hearing your train may randomly come to a halt on the way to or from Broadway, but we made it back to Toddington and repairs were applied in time for 35006 to run on the 3pm service with minimal delay.

Mark (in the shadows) wrestles with the pipes
The initial fix lasted through the day, at which point a motley crew (of three) again descended to apply the longer term fix. Let’s just say, I have now been indoctrinated into the “working on steam engines till late at night out in the pouring rain” club! Everything’s a learning experience after all.

Not the easiest of spaces to access
After the excitement of Saturday, I was anticipating Monday’s second warming fire turn, this time with Luke, to be quite chilled and a chance to put what I’d learnt on Friday into practice. What we had forgotten was that the clocks went back on Sunday morning, so the majority of what we were doing was in fading light and pure darkness. Trying to see into a firebox when your body is blocking the only source of light and you don’t have a head torch is not the easiest of activities.

Fire number 2
Luke reported on Tuesday that the fires had again been fairly successful so something must be going right. Again, I place it down to the fact I have good tutors guiding me through (they aren’t paying me to say this, honest).

A headless Luke ashes out 7820
And finally, some good news! Despite Covid’s best attempts at derailing practical training and assessments, the GWSR has a new Driver.

Dan qualified back in early October, becoming the youngest driver in the department and holds the mantle as the youngest ever driver on the GWSR. I think the smile on his face says it all. Congrats Dan!


  1. Thanks Bryony, an interesting insight!

  2. Great blog as usual folks. Hopefully December will bring us railway bloggers something to write about!

  3. Excellent blog. Nice to see engines at night. I have been told that to see into a firebox that is lit, onr places the shovel partly in and swivel it around to use the fires light without blinding the holder. Hope that helps.
    regards, Paul.

  4. Get a galvanized dust bin - then the ashes won't burn a hole in it!! Great Blog. Well done to all volunteers.

  5. Thanks Bryony, good to see a report, good pictures as well. Hopefuly the Christmas trains will run! Keep Safe and again thanks for the update.
    Paul & Marion

  6. A fine and very interesting blog. Well done you guys