The romance of steam


We live in an ugly age. Almost everything is cheap and plastic and disposable. And we are cheap and plastic too. Don’t be fooled by the glossy pages of the fashion magazines. If you want to experience the true aesthetic of our time, take a stroll through a shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon. It’s not pretty.

I don’t know why. Back in the day, they used to do this properly. They had style. Ladies and gentlemen dressed for dinner. If a gentleman popped out for a stroll on a Saturday afternoon, he wore a high collared suit and a top hat.

Gad, Poncenby! It's a little risque of you to wear a casual bowler to a formal stroll, wouldn't you say?

Gad, Poncenby! It’s a little risque of you to wear a casual bowler to a formal stroll, wouldn’t you say?

We go out like this

I knew I should have opted for my strolling thong. The chafing is killing me!

I knew I should have opted for my strolling thong. The chafing is killing me!

If a lady went out, it was all about bonnets and corsets and long, flowing skirts.

I say, Lillian! I cannot feel my feet. It think my corset may be a little tight.

I say, Lillian! I cannot feel my feet. It think my corset may be a little tight.

Now we have this.

God dammit, Lois. I can't feel my feet. I think my pants may be a little tight.

God dammit, Lois. I can’t feel my feet. I think my pants may be a little tight.

Even the working classes had style. Cloth caps and waistcoats and fingers hooked through braces.

Don't look so glum, Evans. Soon you'll be man enough for some proper neckwear.

Don’t look so glum, Evans. Soon you’ll be man enough for some proper neckwear.

And now we have Day-Glo vests over denim, trucker caps and plastic helmets.



Sometimes it all makes you want to step back in time. Luckily, we live in an age when you can do this. For the young, there’s steampunk. You can dress, and surround yourself with things, as if history had taken a slightly different path. This works fantastically as far as the things are concerned, but has mixed results as far as the dressing is concerned.





Less good

Less good

I’m a little old for that, though. And besides, monocles give me a headache. So instead, we decided to set off on a little family outing. There are family outings, and then there are FAMILY OUTINGS. For a family outing, I, tracyloveshistory, and the two apples of our eyes (or thorns in our sides, depending on how the day is going) might set off for a stroll around the botanical gardens.

This, however, was to be a FAMILY OUTING. It was me, tracyloveshistory, our two thorny apples, my mother, my older sister, her husband, their three apples, one of my younger sisters, her two, my cousin, his wife, their three, and a friend of my sister’s with her daughter, a mere twenty of us off for a fun day out.

We were going for a daytrip on a steam train, to a little town called Cullinan. You may think you’ve never heard of it, but you have. It’s where the world’s biggest diamond came from. The Queen now has a chunk of it on her hat, and carries another piece around on a stick, because gangster rappers didn’t invent bling.

Bling bling!

Bling bling!

Cullinan is a cute little historical town, with friendly little restaurants and cosy little junk shops filled with rusting treasures from a time long past. It also has an enormous hole in it.

Curiously enough, this is only our second most famous small town with a big hole in it.

Curiously enough, this is only our second most famous small town with a big hole in it.

But it wasn’t really about the town. It was about the train. The romance of steam. A step back into a gentler time, when life moved to the slow, measured beat pulsed out by the boiler rather than the staccato rattle of diesel or the insistent hum of electricity. A time when Inspector Poirot might bumble into your compartment with a question or two about the precise nature of your relationship with Lady Underhill, or Passepartout might tumble down the corridor in an effort to secure a penny farthing bicycle for Phineas Fogg.

Tracyloveshistory was beside herself with joy. The more perceptive among you might have picked up that she is rather fond of history. I was rather pleased myself, for a slightly different reason. My older sister and I used to travel down to boarding school on what must have been one of the last commercial steam trains in service in the world. It would be a walk down memory lane.

Tracyloveshistory had an outfit picked out days before the journey, calling on arcane pieces of equipment like corsets and pencil skirts to bridge the gap between the splendours of a bygone age and the more relaxed fashion of today. I wore a jacket.

Not Rednecks. The Rednecks were the ones who weren't about to die of heatstroke.

Not Rednecks. The Rednecks were the ones who weren’t about to die of heatstroke.

When we got there, the first thing we noticed was that everyone else was dressed as if they were off to the redneck games. This was clearly also the first thing my eight-year-old son noticed. Recognizing his own kind, he whipped off his respectable long sleeved shirt to reveal that he had come prepared with a natty little string vest, straight out of rural Alabama. Oh well.

Yeehah, Paw. Where them dang hawgs at?

Yeehah, Paw. Where them dang hawgs at?

And so we began our slow, romantic walk down memory lane. We lasted four minutes. My family doesn’t do slow and romantic. We do frenzied chaos. Sadly it suits us better. My brother in law suddenly sat bolt upright and stared around him like he had just woken up. He, he announced, was going to drive to Cullinan. Super. It made sense. He had a dinner that evening with a Very Important Person, and couldn’t afford to be late. Off he went.

Back he came. His car was parked in by the redneck games contingent. He was beginning to look a little strained. He need not have worried. My family is brilliant at this sort of thing. Three people popping out for a takeaway can use up to nine different cars and seven different locations.

So. Please try to keep up; I’m only going over this once. Or maybe twice. For my own benefit. We all decided (a process which traditionally involves everyone talking very loudly and not listening to anyone else) that the simplest plan was for my brother-in-law to take my sister’s (his wife’s) friend’s car to Cullinan, where he would join us for lunch, before taking his whole family home in my sister’s (his wife’s) friend’s car. When the rest of us got back to the station at the end of the day, my mother would take my sister’s friend back to my brother-in-law’s house in my brother-in-law’s car. My other sister would follow my mother (in my brother-in-law’s car with my sister’s friend) in her own car so that when my mother had dropped both my sister’s friend and my brother-in-law’s car at my brother-in-law’s house, my mother would be able to get back to her house, since my brother-in-law and my sister (his wife) would need to leave early for the Very Important Dinner, and my sister’s friend would be going home in her own car, leaving my mother carless. Sorted. Everything is simple to those who have learned to see clearly.

And off we set. It was perfect. The train chuffed cheerfully along through the suburbs of Pretoria before emerging into the countryside. We all watched the scenery move past at a respectably sedate pace, chatting quietly and eating the snacks we had brought along. It was just what we had imagined.

My brother-in-law’s drive in my sister’s (his wife’s) friend’s car had apparently been even more relaxing. He had got there earlier than us. Early enough, it seemed, to befriend some of the locals. Specifically, he befriended the local Hell’s Angel, Rusty, a tattooed, pierced ginger complete with sleeveless leather vest and skin like a side of raw beef (the African sun is not nice to gingers who feel the call of the open road). We all noticed him as we got off the train, leaning against a pillar drinking a beer at ten in the morning, and wondered what he was doing there.

That question was quickly answered. He was, apparently, waiting for our children. For the not, I’m sure, very low price of having his bar bill settled, he was going to drive our children into town on the back seat of his home customised Harley trike, complete with sharpened metal spike detailing, a gearstick made out of a baseball bat called the “attitude adjuster”, and a coffin shaped trailer with the legend “The raising of the living dead penis” emblazoned on it in gold paint. Right.

We knew the kids were in safe hands when we saw how well rusty reversed the dead penis coffin.

We knew the kids were in safe hands when we saw how well rusty reversed the dead penis coffin.

It would all be OK, though. He promised he would never go faster than 10 km/h, and if you can’t trust a sun-blasted ginger Hell’s Angel in a town with a hole in it, who can you trust? We made sure my mother was following six inches behind him in my sister’s friend’s car, and set off for town on foot.

The coffin hold Rusty's collection of early 20th century Russian classics. Or beer. Probably beer.

The coffin holds Rusty’s collection of early 20th century Russian classics. Or beer. Probably beer.

It was an idyllic little place. We found ourselves sitting at a charming little Greek restaurant across the road from a park filled with historical mining equipment. Rusting historical mining equipment. With moving parts bigger than Rusty’s coffin. For kids to play on. “At”, as the sign told us, “Our own risk”. The children were overjoyed. The parents eyed each other warily and began the ancient game known to all groups of parents collectively watching large groups of children.

“We”, said the womenfolk, in a stunning opening move that broke all of the written rules of the game, “are just going to check out some of the shops. Keep an eye on the kids.” The men had been outflanked. Oh, well. I turned to my cousin and brother-in-law to take up the task. “We”, they said, in an act of betrayal which would have got them shot in wartime, “Are just going to organise some beers. Keep an eye on the kids.” And that was it. There I was, alone, with what felt like thirty children and an open field full of rusting machinery.

Off you go, kids. First one to the top gets a free tetanus injection!

Off you go, kids. First one to the top gets a free tetanus injection!

I heaved a sigh of relief when I turned to my right and saw my cousin’s wife standing next to me. “Not keen on seeing the shops, then?” I asked cheerfully. “Not capable of seeing anything” came the slightly less cheerful reply. “My son tore my last contact lens this morning and now I’m legally blind. Is that little grey shape on that enormous black turning shape one of ours?” Right.

Mercifully, the kids made it through to lunchtime unscathed. Sadly, the same could not be said of lunch itself. The morning had been fun. It had also been long. For those of you who have been parents, you will know what I mean when I tell you that the magic hour had past. At the children’s’ table, bolts were shots. The centre could not hold. Things fell apart. First, there were tears. She was being mean to him, salt was not being passed, juices were not being shared. Everybody was very sad.

Luckily, this did not last long. Less luckily, it was brought to an end by my nephew trying to brain himself on a cheerfully Greek blue and white tile. There was blood. There was high pitched keening. There was a mutual agreement that lunch was now over. Ideally, the day should have been over. But it wasn’t. We still had a two hour train trip to look forward to. Right.

My sister and brother-in-law piled their brood into my sister’s friend’s car and set off to find a doctor. They had a nasty scare when the doctor began pulling small shards of bone from the hole in my nephew’s forehead, but everybody relaxed when they noticed that some of the shards were painted a cheerful Greek blue. “What a relief”, we all said. “He was just carrying half of a glazed tile around in his head. I’m sure the skull itself is mostly intact.”

And so we stepped back onto the train. And back into history. Proper history. No romance here. Instead we caught a glimpse of Blake’s dark satanic mills. The age of steam was not romantic. It was dirty. Not wash your hands dirty. Grit behind your eyes dirty. Ash in your hair dirty. A sheen of grimy sweat all over your skin dirty. You see, to make steam, you need fire. Dirty, grimy, smoke billowing coal fire. And then you drive a train through it.

Not clean

Not clean

Just to add to the authenticity of the moment, my younger sister’s daughter came down with consumption. Her temperature shot up and so did everything in her lungs. Take off her sunglasses and you had one of dickens’ starving little urchins.

We had one of his gin palaces, too. We had sat ourselves down right next to the drinks carriage. The rest of the afternoon saw a steady stream of progressively drunker fellow travellers staggering their way through our midst, stopping off for what they apparently saw as a cheerful little chat every now and then.
We made it back in one piece. Eventually. The train stopped twice to build up steam and once to throw sand on the tracks because the damn thing couldn’t make it up a hill. The little engine that could is slightly less charming when you are stuck on it trying to dig chunks of coal dust out of your eye with the back end of a spoon.

Home was a more than welcome sight, as was our return to the 21st century. But as I lay in the bath that night, gently pushing my toes through the sandbank of grit which had formed around the plug hole, I decided it was all worth it. Days like this are rare. Every family needs to find its myths and legends.

You don’t find Rusty the Hell’s Angel lounging around your house on a Saturday afternoon. You don’t sit around the table on Christmas Eve talking about the time you watched Survivor on TV. You talk about boys with tiles in their heads, and mad panics to make it to Very Important Dinner Parties, and little girls who get so into the history of the glorious age of steam that they come down with consumption.

So when the next family member announces “I read about these fantastic days out where you visit a farm and shear your own sheep”, or “who’s keen on a little pot-holing?” you can sign me up. No-one ever told a good story about all the things they never did.

But maybe you don’t need sheep-shearing, or pot-holing, or even the romance of steam. Maybe you just need to hang around with the right sort of people. We decided to tone it down a little and went out for a quiet breakfast on Saturday. My sister got bitten by a donkey.


53 thoughts on “The romance of steam

  1. A few days ago I stopped off for groceries. There was a notice posted on the board calling for railroad themed photographs for an upcoming local arts shows. This is the fifth blog I’ve stumbled into on steam railroading in the last 3 days. I think I’m having one of those woo-hoot weeks. I hope it means good train news is coming my way – our local steam rail museum has been hauling with diesel since 1995. I miss my cab rides, sooty face, gritty teeth, and the pungent scent of coal fumes on the wind. Come to think of it, I’ve never ‘played clean’. Now I stay gritty with a horse and crawling on the ground shooting nature pics. I’ve reached my goal of becoming a dirty old lady 😉

  2. Thanks for your visit; my return visit is long overdue. You have many valid points.I am not ready to go back to wearing hats and white gloves to go to the supermarket,(or anywhere, if I am honest), but you pictures tell it all.
    I am behind in my own blogging and blog visits, but I will come back and tool around yours.

  3. You were not lying when you used “humor” as a tag. This was LOL funny, and I only use that when something really makes me laugh out loud!

  4. Great pictures. 🙂 You have a fun writing style.

  5. cohencycles says:

    who knew that a bit of a journey to explore writing would open such amazing worlds of craziness…. I am awaiting the next adventure… ! thanks for stopping by Just Fuffy and giving me the opportunity to find you…. tracyloveshistory is next!

  6. liz2you says:

    I have a few pictures of a stop off, for fuel?, at the groot gat, 1995. We were heading for a bike show in Cape Town; believe it or not, I have no pictures of the bike show!! Is this not a lesson learned, Even if it is gatvol, it’s worth a mention! Great read. Liz

  7. cvheerden says:

    The funniest blog ever! You are saying it!!!!!!! Awesome stuff we all think but never dare to write down!

  8. Luann says:

    What a delightful read! If you hadn’t checked out my blog (Rural Rhapsody), I would never have found this. Thank you for visiting.

  9. invisiliz says:

    LOL!! Your wife and yours’ blogs are my daily gem find. Thanks so much for liking my post because now I have found both of you.

  10. I might not own a top hat or a bowler hat, but I wouldn’t dream of leaving the house in the snow without wearing my tweed Trilby hat… After all, when you’re wrapped up in scarves and jumpers and anything else you can find in your wardrobe with even the tiniest content of wool, you need SOMETHING stylish to draw attention away from the fact that you look like the Michelin man…

    • 23thorns says:

      No-one has ever accused me of having a sense of style. My wife is a different story. She went off to buy some clothes for a trip to New Zealand and came back with a puffy fleece jacket. She was devastated. I’ll have to tell her to get herself a tweed Trilby!

  11. museconfuse says:

    I much prefer train travel, it’s lovely taking in the scenery while you traverse through the land to your destination. I really look forward to traveling by train again. It doesn’t have to be a steam train, though I would love to try one someday. Also, it’s so timely to read your post as I was watching Boardwalk Empire and just love how everybody took such care to look so dashing in those days!

    • 23thorns says:

      They did look so much better in those days. Their belts worked properly for a start.
      Be careful what you wish for- I’m not joking when I say the age of steam was dirty!

      • museconfuse says:

        Hahah I probably wouldn’t want to go back to the old days of steam but it is still nice to romanize the experience. 😉

  12. Learning the hard way says:

    And this is where sitcoms are born. Most droll 🙂

  13. duncanr says:

    Love steam trains. They hold many happy memories for me. My dad worked on the railways – as a driver. Because of this, we got cheap rail travel. So every year, we boarded a steam train from Edinburgh to such exotic locations as Kinghorn, Burntisland, or Arbroath for our annual two week summer holiday – I can still remember the unique smell/stink of steam train travel !

    Since our summer holiday invariably involved two miserable weeks spent in an antiquated caravan** sheltering from the rain, the journey to, and the journey home, were usually the best part of the holiday ! 😆

    ** caravans in those far off days had not yet been fitted with ‘indoor plumbing’ so if you wanted to shower or have a pee, you had to trudge across a muddy field to the camp’s toilet block 😦

  14. duncanr says:

    wish my sister had got bitten on her ass by a donkey 😆

  15. Jocelyn Hers says:

    I remember steam trains – used to go on holiday & fight over not having the middle bunk… As for families – ours once took 2 days to decide whether or not to go for pizza, and if so, who would order & who would collect (delivery cost money). Shortly thereafter my 3 year old nephew’s very blonde hair was mistaken by a donkey for its hay lunch. It was most indignant to discover its mistake….

  16. Now that I’ve stopping guffawing, wiped the tears and gotten my breath back, I have to ask: what is the MOST famous town with a hole in it? Also… does Rusty REALLY have a zombie penis in a coffin behind his motortrickle?

  17. Gosh, reminds me of my university days – Johannesburg to Alicedale was a boring modern train, but the last leg to Grahamstown was by steam. Beautiful scenery, leather and wood benches, and eyes full of grit. What fun

    • 23thorns says:

      Yup. That was the one my sister and I used to take down to boarding school. We used to throw those nasty green fake leather cushions out the window as we crossed the Vaal. My sister met a farmer the other day who used to find them artfully scattered around her farm.

  18. Lyndal Schweizer says:

    Never fear – there are many more exciting family outing plans up my sleeve!

  19. Nil says:

    Greatly enjoyed you outing! 😀
    Guess I am a bit older than you guys – as a child I had my fill of steam trains – and the inevitable ‘chunks of coal’ in my eyes my parents desparately tried to remove with whatever means they had around… 😉

  20. I am crying with the giggles, even if it is at our own expense and even if you published that shocking photograph of me with all of those teeth. Thanks for that! There was a reason, apparently, why the farmyard donkey didn’t bite me on the weekend. He recognized a far superior set of chompers when he saw them.

    • 23thorns says:

      I can say with great confidence that you look vastly better than me. Forty three people have unfollowed my blog since I put that up, and one of them has taken out a restraining order.

      • Marcia says:

        Well, all I can say is that *I* thoroughly enjoyed not only your adventure, but all the photos, especially of you and tracyloveshistory. I think you are a great looking…and extremely brave… couple, and your children are adorable. No jokes from me at all, here. I do have to say that the captions under your chosen illustrations are just the best! The whole tale is hilarious (except for the broken tiles in your poor nephew’s forehead, of course), but the captions are maybe the best part of all! Thanks for another great read, and I do hope you are planning more fun-filled family outings soon.

      • 23thorns says:

        in two years time, the broken tiles will be the only thing we remember, and the scars will be gone. We’re all off for a family trip to the Seychelles next month in memory of my father. Brace yourself!
        PS. Thank you for your kind words- tracyloveshistory looks great- I only look OK because I’m sitting next to her.

      • Marcia says:

        I think you look perfect together, like complimentary colors on the color wheel. You look…happy. Wow. What a great thing that is! I have always wanted to see the Seychelles, so I can’t wait to read your stories about your adventures there. Take pictures. Write captions! And have fun when you go. Some of us will be living vicariously through your exploits!

    • warmginger says:

      I was thinking how stunning you are. He married up! (Sorry, it’s my phrase of the day – one of my husband’s students said it to him this afternoon when I popped in to visit his school.) 🙂

      • Aw, thanks. I will recall and reuse that phrase at every opportunity. “You’d better pick up your dirty laundry from the floor next to the washing machine, dear,” I’ll say. “Remember warmginger said you married up.” “Is that an empty toilet roll on the holder? Remember…”.

  21. […] to include a glimpse of my favorite post each week.  This week’s Best Read is from 23Thorns:  The Romance of Steam.  He gives a look at a recent family trip by train, with some insight into his family, and the […]

  22. billgncs says:

    kids need myths and legends to replay and declare who they are. And adventures that end well are very good too.

  23. An hour or two from my home, there’s a steam train that runs through an old logging area, now grown back up. Just up the mountain for a few hours, then back down. I suppose it’s a tourist trap, but it was such a huge thing to me as a kid! Since then, I’ve taken my own children, though they were pretty young…maybe time to go back. You’re right when you say every family needs its myths and legends…and your wife is right about history. So many good things are passing away…we have to hold on to them while we can.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s