It’s the smell of new Plasticine that takes me back to my early schooldays and the visual stimulus of a Rupert Bear annual that dragoons back memories of Christmas’ past. So what is it about steam that evokes such powerful emotions? No, I don’t mean the pure steam that comes from a boiling kettle but the steam associated with traction engines. This ‘steam’ is a beguiling mixture of burning coal, hot water and lubricating oil that can transform a man of a certain age into the small boy he once was by conjuring up pictures of railway stations of old. But I get ahead of myself. What were the forestry department doing with a steam engine?
Keeping the tracks and by-ways of the estate in usable order for the farm machinery, and the walking public, is one of the responsibilities that falls to us at this time of year. They become quagmires.
Where a track goes uphill it can soon form axle deep ruts of impassable mud and if it is a principle route, as Cobbs Wood track is for farm machinery, it needs careful maintenance. Without this attention, movement of tractors and equipment around the estate would be severely hampered. So throughout the year and whenever hard core becomes available, the forestry team have been putting down base layers of hard core and then laying down a 3” limestone screed on top of that. This work is hard and takes its toll of both man and machine as the dryness of the concrete seems to sap the moisture from even gloved hands and the lumps of rubble batter at every surface they contact. Even the smaller 3” core is difficult to move as shovelling from an uneven base is almost impossible and hand balling is usually the best method of placement.
The end result of all this labour was a viable track leading past Cobbs Wood farm and some way up the hill to meet with last year’s completed work. This left a track, although solid, that was somewhat uneven and both farm driver and walker alike complained about its lumpiness.
The solution was to roll it. As luck would have it John, the Forestry engineer ranger on the forestry team, is a traction engine enthusiast and was both local and willing to bring his machine along and give the track a good pounding. These engines famously travel at a slow pace and need a special licence to take on the open highway, so it was not without some trouble that the beast duly arrived at the allotted time on Thursday with its Landrover escort.
Even as it neared, the senses began to be activated. Warm lubricating oil, coal fired steam, puffs of steam, clanking machine, the heavy steel roller wheels crunching on metalled road and a belching chimney, all combined to weave their magic spell. Any comparison of size or technology with today’s tractors would leave these engines wanting and they certainly do not have the speed and versatility demanded of the modern machine. But in their day they did herald the sea change in the management of farming.
As it drew level with the first limestone potholes it was time for the driving team to engage 4WD or at least the traction engine equivalent, 2WD. The one of the engineers pushed home a large bolt to engage the remaining un-driven rear wheel to the drive linkage. Now both rear wheels were being driven as opposed to the more economical single wheel drive reserved for road usage.
It’s only on close inspection that one gets the real feel for the engineering of these machines. The forgings and castings look enormous in today’s “value engineered” world where cost is paramount and each component is reduced to its minimum. It’s that solidness that gives an engineer a warm feeling for the quality of the tractors. That and the fact that it is engineering that can be readily assimilated by even the most simple of beings (yes I have my hand in the air). Clambering up on the back, I watched as Alex carefully selected lumps of coal to place them on the fire and avoid hotspots. Apparently it helps the fire burn evenly and hence more efficiently (I think that’s what he said, seem to be getting mutton deaf these days).
With preparations finished, the driving team set about the rolling task. With rapt concentration, they guided this monster along the prepared track with minute precision when considering the controlling mechanism – a chain! It’s the back wheels that they roll with and not the impressive front roller (I was on a steep learning curve today).So maintaining these wheels precisely meant a lot of reversing and peering over mountains of metalwork. The task was equally shared across the sexes.
Watching the work, I was struck by the impact (yes, a pun) of the roller. Of course it crushed and smoothed the track. But strangely, as the rollers did their work they took on the colours of the crushed limestone and the engine began to blend. This vast, smoke belching, clanking, metallic monster almost merged into the autumnal colours that are a visual treat at this time of year in Cobbs Wood.
The end result was a smooth (ish) track that will allow all who wish to access the Woods and beyond without endangering their sumps or besmirching their gaiters – result. All that was left to do was to top out with the traditional feast of bacon and eggs cooked on / in the firebox. What’s not to like about bacon crisped with curls of soot and eggs with coal dust, lying gently, on their yolky centres. Ooops, Katie only managed to find meat pies, never mind it’s chow time!