Friday, 31 March 2017

Steaming through the Valleys

A long awaited event happens this weekend. Well, I say long awaited, actually, it is 4 months, in the broad expanse of time not very long at all, but 4 months is long enough if, like me, you are a big fan.

This event happens every year. For those of us that live close by, it heralds the end of winter, and the start of the new season. It coincides with longer days, woodland flowers, and Easter.

If you happen to be in the vicinity not only will you be able to see it, but you'll also smell and hear it. For many it will be a joy to behold, for others it brings back memories of a simpler time, when phones were fixed to a socket on the wall and definitely not smart, and Internet was something a Yorkshire fisherman said to his mate upon landing a trout.

Yes folks, Steam is back on the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway. Like a trusty old friend returned from a long winter break, 'blood and custard' coloured carriages will carry folk three miles down the Leven Valley from Haverthwaite to Lakeside, behind a steam engine. The sight of that glorious train ambling along at little more than walking pace, it's steam drifting lazily into the Lakeland air, is one of the joys of this part of Lakeland.
Fairburn tank no 42073 hauls a train of 5 'blood and custard' coloured coaches towards Newby Bridge Halt. This photograph is copyright of the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway.

It joins it's illustrious neighbour up the coast, L'ile Ratty, or to give it a name befitting of Sunday Best, The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway. Those wonderful little 15 inch gauge engines have been chugging sedately into Eskdale for the past month, and the line dates back to the 1870's. It was originally 3ft gauge,  but following closure was converted to 15inch gauge in 1915.

River Irt, the oldest working 15 inch gauge locomotive in the world, on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway

Tomorrow, April 1st 2017, (and this is no April Fools joke by the way) a third iconic steam passenger transport vehicle, one also built by the Furness Railway company and still in full service, also begins a season of operation. The Steam Yacht Gondola, which is reputed to be the oldest steam driven passenger vessel in the world, sails tomorrow, weather permitting, from the pier at Coniston. Another joyous site to behold.

Gondola's story begins in 1849. Having noted how successful the Kendal and Windermere Railway had been at bringing visitors to Windermere, the directors of the Furness Railway decided that the answer to Coniston's transport problems was to build a railway joining the main Barrow to Whitehaven line with Coniston, and at the same time launch a passenger cruise service on Coniston Water. 

The Railway opened in 1859, and steam yacht "Gondola" was launched in November of the same year, entering service for the following summer season. It became an immediate success, so much so that by the turn of the century a second boat was required. "The Lady of the Lake" entered service in 1907. She was sightly longer and carried more than twice the number of passengers than Gondola. She ran until the second world war, when she was taken out of service, never to return. She was scrapped in 1950.

Gondola had been taken out of service in 1936, and the cost of returning her to service in 1945 was considered prohibitive. She was sold and then converted to a houseboat. Little structural work was carried out on her, and by 1960 she had been abandoned and was little more than a derelict hulk, moored at the southern end of the lake. During a violent storm she broke free from her mooring, drifted into a reed bed, and sank. Luckily, the water was not deep, so she did not disappear from view.  
For the next ten years her half submerged remains were a curious landmark to those passing by. 
Salvaging and rebuilding her was no mean feat. Funds had to be raised in order to carry out a feasibility study, and it was found that although the hull and engine were not salvageable, much of the remainder of the vessel was. A second round of fund raising was undertaken in order to have a new hull built, an engine commissioned and the remainder of the boat restored back to it's former glory.
In March 1980, the fully restored "Gondola" was launched by Sheila Howell, granddaughter of Felix Hamill, her first master back in 1859. After final trials she finally entered service for the second time in the summer of 1980. And she's been steaming gracefully ever since.

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