On Volunteers and Victorians

A couple of events over the Bank Holiday weekend set me thinking (which is a novelty).  

The first was on Sunday, when I attended my second day of training, as a volunteer, to learn how to man the Ticket Office at the Staffordshire Narrow Gauge Railway (SNGR) at Amerton Farm near Stowe-by-Chartley https://amertonrailway.co.uk/, better known as Amerton Railway.

Just before you start thinking 'Two days! Strewth he must be slow on the uptake!', there's more to it than you might at first think (certainly more than I had anticipated).  

I actually feel something of a fraud because, whereas the other volunteers can, and do, talk knowledgeably about engines and how they work, along with signals and points and stuff, I can't.  I'm only here because I, along with many others I suspect, like being in and around trains and I think I'm reasonably OK in customer-facing roles (I haven't bitten anyone yet, anyway).

It was a relatively quiet day given that we had typical English Bank Holiday weather but, nevertheless, there must have been about 100 adults and children through the gates all told.  For the Santa Specials as many as 800+ adults and children can be processed in a day - I know, as I was on mince pie warming duty one day last Christmas!  

It occurred to me that there must be thousands of organisations like Amerton Railway up and down the country, wholly or mostly run by volunteers, providing a much-loved service at a reasonable price, and I think that's something to celebrate in a world where there's often not too many reasons to be cheerful.

On Bank Holiday Monday, I visited another example of this phenomenon.  For years I've lived in and around Burton upon Trent and I've often said to myself 'I really must visit there' and have never got around to it, but now I have and I'm glad I did!  Where?  I'm talking about Claymills Victorian Pumping Stations http://claymills.org.uk/

If you haven't been to this yet, you really should.  Built to carry the thousands of gallons of effluent created by the Burton brewing industry to somewhere else other than Burton, and to avoid bringing the River Trent to a standstill as had been the previous practice, this is a testament to the engineering ingenuity and brilliance of the Victorian era.


You can say what you like about the Victorians but they certainly knew how to build things on a grand scale.  These four massive beam engines had a clear function and were not involved in a truly glamorous occupation but, nevertheless, they are housed in absolute splendour.  Just look at those columns!  They could, and probably should, have been entirely functional.  They were not intended to be gawped at by the general public and I doubt they would have been on the itinerary of any visiting dignitary but that didn't stop the Victorian designers from celebrating the wonder and magnitude of the engines with the exuberance of their architecture.  The Victorians were leading the world in their engineering ingenuity and innovation and they wanted to venerate their industrial might, and why not?

I've droned on before about how much we've lost and how little we gained during the architectural vandalism of the 1960s and 1970s.  Take Burton railway station, for example.  We did have the Victorian anthem to rail travel, which looked like this:



Now, to me, that says 'We're going to take you on an adventure and you're going to love it!'  Clearly that wasn't the message that British Rail in the 1960s wanted to convey, so they demolished that and replaced it with this:


Which, I think, says 'If you're lucky, we're going to take you from A to B and you're going to hate every minute of it'.  At best, it looks like an early draft for a gentleman's W.C.  Mind you, when the Victorians designed a gents' urinal, they came up with this:


See what I mean?

Back at Claymills, if you get the chance to visit here when it is 'in steam', then you're in for a treat.  It doesn't matter if, like me, you haven't got a clue about the nuts and bolts of the engineering in front of you, just glory in the wonder of Victorian mechanisation at its best.  This is muscular mechanics, fabulously functional yet breathtakingly beautiful.

Once again, Claymills is staffed entirely by volunteers and a wonderfully enthusiastic and knowledgeable bunch they are, too.

I suppose the point about volunteering is that, not only are you keeping something working that private or public enterprise probably wouldn't, but you are also getting the chance to work in and around something that you might not have got anywhere near in your normal working life.  With that in mind, if you fancy playing with trains on a much larger scale than your average train set, then Amerton Railway are always interested in hearing from people who want to volunteer on the Operations side of things.  Check out their website:




When he's not playing at trains, Philip has been known to write the odd thing.  You can find it all here.



good on you phil salt of the earth and all that. I enjoyed reading this. 


Thanks very much for taking the time to comment.  I've been volunteering for various things ever since I retired about 5 years ago.  Some have lasted longer than others, I think I've been searching for something that I will really enjoy without it becoming all-consuming (as these things can do).  I'll let you know when I've found it :-)

Fascinating, Phil.  I too am always struck by the way the Victorians set out to make things beautiful as well as functional.  And it was criminal what was done to that railway station!  I hope you enjoy your volunteering.  You've also reminded me that where I live we have a working windmill, manned by volunteers, which I've been meaning to visit for years but never got round to.  That's next on my list!  

Thanks so much for the kind comment.  I would urge you to go and visit your windmill, I'm sure you will be delighted by the enthusiasm of the volunteers.  My wife hates any situation where she's given too much information, so we normally avoid anyone offering to 'explain things to us' but we were collared by a chap at the Pumping Station who clearly wanted to tell us chapter and verse about a small turbine he had been restoring.  Most of what he told us, particularly about the engineering problems he had encountered and solved, went completely over our heads but you couldn't fault his enthusiasm and obvious love of the machinery he was single-handedly restoring to working order.  I think there's a world of difference between those who have learned a scriipt and are determined to cover all of it and those who have an intimate knowledge of the subject and want to share it with you.

Yes, it was criminal what happened to Burton Station, even John Betjeman's campaign to save it didn't deter BR's vandals!