Last traction hero
Until this month, I had only once asked for someone to take the controls from me. It was in a helicopter; the pilot giving me a flying lesson asked me to put the craft into a hover and said that I should tell him as soon as I felt I wanted him to take the stick. He gave me the stick and five, maybe six, seconds later, I screamed at him to take control before I pasted us into the runway.
It wasn't the most dignified of events, but at least it happened on board a helicopter, a machine laden with glamour and daredevil thrills. This month, I had to ask, for the second time in my life, for someone to take the controls from me. Only this time there was no joystick and the man I asked to save me was wearing a boiler suit and steel toe-capped boots.
There's no cool way of breaking this one; we were on a traction engine. I had been called upon to ride on the footplate of the thing in the course of making a telly programme about engineering. It was no big deal and, to be honest, when the idea was raised at some meeting or other, I was unmoved by the prospect of grinding along on some dreary old donkey from the past whilst a Fred Dibner-alike droned on about the good ol' days.
Sure enough, on the big day, I turned up at a workshop and out came ‘the old girl', rattling along on metal wheels, puffing smoke and doing all the stuff that sends blokes with massive sideburns all misty-eyed and sentimental. We were to drive around the perimeter of the workshop building at the machine's top speed of three-and-a-half miles an hour. I thought I might die of boredom as I clambered onto the metal footplate and took my place alongside the owner.
"I turned up at the workshop and out came the traction engine. We were to drive around the yard at the machine’s top speed of 3.5mph..."
He pulled levers, twirled wheels, wiped things with oily rags and then, with a jolt that felt like it could bring the planet to an immediate halt, the thing lurched off and went straight to its top speed of three-and-a-half miles an hour. I was thrown heavily backwards on the footplate, saving myself only by exerting superhuman levels of effort with my calf muscles and throwing myself forwards into the whirling jaws of the metal road wheels ahead of me. I felt like a coffee bean about to enter the grinder, and grabbed for something to stop me meeting a slow, messy death. I found a metal bracket on the side of the boiler and gripped it.
I was saved from the grinder, but my hand was burned to a crisp by the hot metal of the bracket. I did some swearing. The thing was bloody terrifying. Everything was hot, whirling, grinding and slick with boiling water and hot oil. The noise of the metal wheels shrieking and grinding into the tarmac as 10 tonnes of steam engine pressed its belly down on them was like nothing I have ever suffered. And then it all got worse by a factor of a million.
As I lurched to my feet and snatched back the burned and scalded ruins of my left hand, I heard the driver shout, "You steer for a minute, just yell if you're scared." He grinned, and was gone. I whipped round as he leapt from the footplate and hit the deck, setting off at a run, away from the engine, and bent to retrieve something from the ground. It was an oil can and had, presumably, fallen off as we pounded another lump in the road to dust.
"Be alright," he yelled, "just keep her off the road," and he nodded ahead. I span round to stare down the hissing, belching boiler and saw that I was headed for the main road, beyond the gates of the compound.
This wasn't the way I had foreseen my end. Steam traction engines are black and white and are for old boys to get all sentimental about. They are not for delivering up terrified muscle-car fans to the pearly gates in a cloud of demonic steam and noise. I screamed for the owner to get back on the footplate and twirled the hot, red steering wheel, feeling it spin meaninglessly as it failed to take up the slack in the steering chains hanging limply below the great machine's sagging, steaming guts. I looked at the unfathomable levers and chains draped about the boiler door. I wanted the owner to get back on the footplate before I ploughed a dead straight furrow across the main road and through the hills to Wales and straight to hell. And for the second time in my life, I pleaded, "Please God, take the controls back."
The driver got back on and, in seconds, had turned the snorting monster into a docile, plodding ox.
As I fired up my 'Stang for the trip home, I looked across at the cooling traction engine with a newfound respect... and then gunned the ‘Stang and thanked God for petrol.