Part of the experience of travelling by steam was stopping at the water tower. These were tanks kept constantly replenished by the tracks, where at times we stopped. The fireman, for we had firemen then to stoke the fires, would alight and take the large hose to fill the boiler. I can recall seeing him once as he alighted. We had to wait for the steam pressure to rise again before we could go on our journey, but the fires were kept well-stoked and the delay was not long.Years later we could see forlorn, abandoned water towers by the tracks as the diesel trains that had rendered them redundant sped past. They are gone now, sold as scrap.
Gone also are the old signal boxes, though you still see the occasional one, a fossil from an earlier age, whose innards gather dust in mournful silence. The mechanical signals went with them. We might feel bit nostalgic,but the modern system of lights is an improvement. The modern systems are computer controlled and do the job well. We cannot be Luddites! But there was a charm to steam that the modern system does not possess.
But the sensory memory was the smell. There was at various times the slightly pungent scent of burning coal. It was distinct, the scent that we found in towns with old coal fires before we took to gas. I recall it as the scent of Gorton,the industrial area where I grew up till I was five and where my grandfather had worked at the railway works. The distinct aroma of coal smoke lingers with you throughout the years. You never forget it and even now it evokes childhood memories, though I smell it but seldom now.
Carriages varied then, and sometimes we had compartments that contained only six seats accessed by a corridor, very comfortable and private, but on lonely nights people were vulnerable to assault. These have been discontinued. I liked them, but I can see the point in their discontinuation for safety reasons. But the corridor carriages proved useful in the Second World War for moving German prisoners of war. My father recalled doing so in North Africa, where he nervously sat at the end of the corridor with a bren gun guarding a carriage load of SS troops. These guys were apt to break out and might have to be shot if they did. Fortunately they didn't, so all was well.
Gone also is the tender, the coal wagon that trailed behind the engine from which the fireman shoveled coal into the coal into the furnace. Being a fireman was a hard job that involved great physical effort over the course of a journey. Back home in Stretford I used to talk to an ex-fireman.Years after the last steam engine was decommissioned he was still employed as a ticket collector. An Asian man, he had come to England to work and had been employed by British Rail to shovel coal. So he must have been one of the youngest firemen at the time, for most have long gone into retirement, as has he now.