South Tynedale Railway

“There is a steam train-line not far from here,” my husband says, his eyes alight with anticipation, and I refrain from telling him that there is a steam train-line not far from any where in Britain.

Because he already knows. He knows so much more about trains than I will ever want to learn, so I swallow my smart ass reply and give him my most indulgent smile instead. I take a deep breath and prepare myself to enjoy reliving the harrowing moments that many people start their days with to get to the office–riding an expensive train that arrives late and is packed with unruly kids and bad-tempered adults. Only this time, because I am so loved, I shall have the privilege of going through this magical experience in slow-freaking-motion.

As a  bonus, we'll also be in the same place we were when we alight.

As a bonus,  instead of arriving somewhere else after the journey, we’ll also alight in the same place we started.

This is what it means to be married to a railway man, and not just to another guy who happens to work in the railway industry. My husband sees the whole experience in a different light. His excitement isn’t that of a yo-yo dieter, unable to suppress a spurt of wary optimism that says this time will be different. He knows it won’t be. But that is the “fun” of it.



If I were married to anyone else, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate the important role that transport plays in all kinds of civilization, or be as appalled at the utter, utter mess that we have made of a system that was invented to make things more convenient for the ones who are supposed to use it. It all starts here, with the trains. Oh, and this:

The Beeching Report, published in 1963.

The Beeching Report, published in 1963.

Like most other steam train-lines, The South Tynedale Railway in Alston exists as it does today because, at some point, the ones in charge decided that the train industry wouldn’t be efficient enough against the road transport industry unless some of the least-used railway lines were shut down.  Jack the Ripper might have agreed to that, and then he’ll add, “The fight against the sex industry won’t be efficient unless we butcher a few prostitutes.”

Let me be clear here: I am not saying Dr. Beeching is like Jack the Ripper.  The railway closures may have been nicknamed The Beeching Axe, but he didn’t butcher anyone. He only destroyed some livelihoods that the bus replacement services were unable to restore. That’s what happens when things that are supposed to be available for all in a society that promotes equality, like the mobility transport provides or even medical services that keep us alive, are run for financial gain.  When the chosen 4,000 route miles were closed (around a third of the whole network), the commerce for the communities those lines served suffered, and no less than 70,000 railway jobs were cut.

"...It was surgery, not mad chopping." - Dr. Richard Beeting (1913-1985)

“…It was surgery, not mad chopping.”
– Dr. Richard Beeching (1913-1985)

Maybe Dr. Beeching saw that the railways would be privatized in a few decades, and no one would be able to afford train tickets then, so we might as well start to learn to do without them. Those in charge were just preparing us for the future, as any good government should. It has nothing to do with the fact that the government that commissioned his report had strong ties to the road construction lobby and the administrations that implemented privatization received funds from people with ties to road construction associations.

The closures were, and still are, controversial. But this is a country where instead of staging a military coup, people simply opted to vote for a different government to establish a welfare state after World War II, and then carried on drinking tea with milk. Where events like railway closures would prompt bloody protests in some countries, in Britain it gives people the urge to volunteer dressing up as Victorian railwaymen and running the lines themselves.

It took years of marriage for me to understand that places like The South Tynedale Railway are not merely some tribute to Britain’s golden age of steam; some wistful determination to hold on to the glory days. For one thing, in here passengers sit in the same class carriages. Members of staff actually mean it when they say they’re sorry if a service is delayed, and I’d bet you won’t find such cheerful ticket issuing officers from any century. 

These places represent a very British form of defiance, run and staffed entirely by enthusiastic volunteers who spend their free time driving trains they’ve rescued from some shed. In here, trains are more than just vehicles for the goals of profit-driven CEOs. It’s a demonstration to equally enthusiastic families how Britons would like railways to be run.

I will probably never enjoy these places like my husband does, but I see where he’s coming from. And as long as he keeps buying me ice cream after the journey, I’ll do my best to keep the smart assery to a minimum.

south tynedale railway ivory


Austin Healey Sprite

You know what they say about a man with big toes? Yep, dude won’t need a car.

I’m not sure when modes of transport began to be seen as an indication of a man’s size, but I’ve got a feeling it has something to do with the concept of manhood being measured by one’s ability to bring home the bacon. Even in the coaching days, owning a carriage means you’ve got the money. These things were expensive, so only the very rich can afford to have the top of the line stuff. As Roy Porter said,

Chaises could be hired, but the Englishman’s dream was to own his own.

But once you have a carriage, you’ll start seeing how it compares to others, and presumably the dick-measuring begins. Industrialization doesn’t seem to have had an effect on this perceived social measuring stick of a man’s worth. From the beginning, the British car industry was known for manufacturing premium sports cars: Bentley, Rolls Royce, Aston Martin… these were all toys for the rich boys. Too bad money couldn’t buy them big toes.

Except, except… it did. Money buys food, and food provides nutrition. It took two World Wars to erase the telltale physical marks of poverty in Britain, and now you don’t need millions to be tall,  have decent clothing or get a tan abroad. It seems fitting that a veteran of both World Wars would also be the one to make the sports car available for the newly upwardly mobile population.


Donald Healey (1898-1988)
Automobile Engineer, Rally Driver, Speed Record Holder and All Around Man’s Man.

Born in Cornwall, Healey served on the anti-Zeppelin patrols during the First World War. He studied automobile engineering after he was shot down by British anti-aircraft fire and then he opened a garage in 1919. A few years later, he was competing in the Monte Carlo Rally and soon he was the General Manager at Triumph Motor Company where he created the Southern Cross and Dolomite 8 models.

I do hope Mrs. Healey also liked cars, or she would have been terribly bored. Her husband was always thinking about cars and mechanical stuff. During the Second World War, when other men were telling everyone about their wives or what they’d like to eat as soon as the war is over, Donald Healey was discussing sports car design when he wasn’t busy being in charge of developing an aircraft carburettor (don’t ask) or working on some armoured vehicles for Humber.

After the war, he created Donald Healey Motor Company and produced a car claimed to be the fastest production closed car in the world (timed at 104.7 mph over a mile), the Elliot Saloon. By 1952, he’s in a joint venture with the British Motor Corporation and together they came up with the car that middle class teenage boys have been wanting for centuries:

1958 Austin Healey Sprite (Yay!)

1958 Austin Healey Sprite.
It’s like being a rich kid, but poorer.

It was a bargain–offered at £669 inclusive of purchase tax. No, it won’t break speed records (top speed is 84 mph) but for handling and reliability it was second to none. The Sprite’s chassis design was the world’s first volume-production sports car to use unitary construction (don’t ask), and it was an instant success. The chairman of BMC, a Brummie called Leonard Lord, was not only astute enough to recognize the potential of this emerging market, he was also smart enough to utilize Healey’s skills and reputation. The car’s iconic headlamps gave it the nickname “Frog-eye” in the UK and “Bug-eye” in the US, but it also embodies what the little Sprite is all about: cost cutting.

Healey’s original idea was to have the headlights pop out when on and the rest of the time to retract on the bonnet (hood), but budget constraints necessitated a compromise.  All other parts used to make the Sprite were already available on other BMC cars (eg. the engine was the same one used for the Morris Minor 1000).  When it also won several major international races and rallies, its “cool factor” was secured and it’s still one of the most popular classic sports car today.  It’s still a joy to ride, but now it costs more to hire the Austin Healey Sprite for a day than it did to buy the whole thing when it first came out.  After all the posturing and countless men feeling like they come up short, this nifty sports car proves that all you need to do is know how to use what you already have, no matter what size it is.


Porter, Roy. The Penguin Social History of Britain: English Society in the Eighteenth Century. Penguin Group, 1982.