Getting steamed up about a day trip from London.

I wanted to visit Canterbury again.

I had been there many years ago, before this web site or digital photography had been thought of, and could remember very little of that visit and so decided to try a day trip from London by train.

I was going to give very little thought to the actual journey apart from enquiring about fares and train times until I made the discovery that the journey could be every bit as interesting as the destination.

Let me digress a moment. There are many railway preservation groups in this country who have their own line and run steam hauled services. These railways are defined as Light Railways and require less stringent conditions to run them compared with normal main line passenger services. The disadvantage of a Light Railway is that it is limited to a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour.

Steam train

Then, quite by chance, I heard about a company called 'Steam Dreams' that had started a service in June 2000 called the Cathedrals Express. This is a service leaving London on certain days during the year to cathedral cities such as Canterbury, Winchester, Ely and others. This, however, is no ordinary service. The trains are all hauled by steam locomotives, use vintage rolling stock including a dining car and travel at up to 75 miles per hour on main lines.

What a combination! The cathedral city of Canterbury and a ride on an express steam train. I couldn't possibly miss an opportunity like that now could I?

So it was, with mounting excitement that I found myself on the concourse of London Victoria Station at 11.15 a.m. on a Thursday morning in August 2002. At about 11.30 a.m. the heritage coaches, in their green livery, were hauled into platform 2 by a diesel locomotive and very soon after the steam locomotive backed on to the other end, the front, of the train. Needless to say the platform by the steam locomotive was packed with people all wanting to look, and photograph, this softly hissing shiny monster before they boarded the train.

As the train was not due to depart until 12.00 Noon it was a good 20 minutes later before everyone started to board the train; the air buzzing with excited talk. I had been in my seat for a little while when the engine sounded its whistle to signal its impending departure. One of the nice things about steam trains is that they start so smoothly that movement at first is imperceptible and so it was that it took me a few seconds to realise that we were moving.

The pulse of the steam exhaust was muted but distinctive as we accelerated smoothly out of Victoria. For the first forty minutes we passed through mainly suburban areas but the scenery had changed dramatically to rural Kent countryside by the time we roared through Eynesford Station. When passing through a longish tunnel I could detect the slight smell of smoke and sulphur through the open window and noted that when we came out the other end the outside of the window was misted up for a short time.

What a wonderful, nostalgic, experience sitting comfortably listening to the rapid pulse of the exhaust as the train sped through the Kent countryside - a windmill here, a couple of oast houses there, two cows standing in a river, wisps of smoke and steam drifting past the window.

In what seemed to be no time at all we caught a glimpse of Canterbury Cathedral standing like a beacon in the centre of the city as we pulled in to Canterbury West Station. I spent a delightful afternoon exploring the city in the sunshine before returning to the station for our 5.00 p.m. departure.

On the return journey the train loops round along the coast to Folkstone passing through the outskirts of Dover on the way and we had an impressive view over the town to Dover Castle up on the cliffs followed by some very interesting coastal scenery between Dover and Folkstone. We stopped for about twenty minutes at Folkstone for the engine to take on water and passengers piled out and headed for the locomotive for another bout of goggling. Me too, Me too! When we were on our way once again it was interesting to see that some locals, at the stations we went through, obviously knew we were coming and they were ready with their cameras and cam-corders. Others however looked on in total disbelief as we passed at speed - astonishment writ large on their faces. "Did I see what I thought I saw?" Why is it, do you suppose, that everybody and his dog waves as a steam train goes by?

We arrived back at Victoria, at 8.00 p.m., dead on time of course, after a truly magical day due, in large part, to the warm, friendly attitude of the obviously dedicated train staff.

So what was the verdict?     I - WANT - TO - DO - IT - AGAIN!

Barry Samuels, August 2002

You can see pictures taken on the train and for information about these day trips see the Steam Dreams web site.


The technical details for those who are interested:

The train was hauled by 'Canadian Pacific' - a Merchant Navy Class 4-6-2 No 35005