Less haste, less speed

More haste, less speed, those old wives tell us.

Well, I have news for them. It’s less haste, less speed as well.

Today I spent my time watching old steam engines make their painfully slow way around the estates of a large Cornish stately home.

For a princely sum, we were permitted to amble around and peruse various gargantuan iron horses whose top speed averaged about ten miles an hour.

What these machines need, above all, from the 21st century traveller, is patience.

Because watching steam traction engines is like watching an ancient gentleman or lady with a zimmer frame making their way across the road; slow and deliberate. Hurry is another country somewhere far away.

I would not want you to conclude from this description that the engines are calm, or, indeed, quiet.

In fact, there was a fearful din at this meeting place for those engineer enthusiasts who love these old dinosaurs, a stage of steam which had its moment but has long been superseded.

“How much does that thing weigh, please?” hollered Phil as a steam roller crept tortuously past. “fourteen and a half tonnes” bawled back the delighted reply.

They are so grateful when you ask, these engineers whom steam has claimed for its own.They like polishing the brass on their engines until they can see their blackened faces in it.

There is none of the romance of a steam train, which can still fly along a track with debonair efficiency. Being pulled along by a steam engine is a ponderous business. They lumber along the road, all pistons and pummelling.

And because there is no speed, the thick black coal smoke hangs about to coat our nasal cavities and thicken the hot summer air.

Every now and then, it would make a loud backfiring bang and everyone, including the dogs who had arrived for the 2 o’clock doggy talent show, would jump violently.

I wondered, as the day wore on and became hot and wearing:what process was making that noise?

We all know what detonation is. It’s a big boom. An explosion which sends shock waves throbbing through the air. It happens with bombs and TNT and it is not something you want to be close to.

But there’s a subsonic relative of the detonation. Any time something is heated until it burns away rapidly, transferring heat to cold areas with lightning speed-slower than the speed of sound-that’s deflagration.

We see far more deflagration in our lives than detonation. And we never give it the credit that perhaps it deserves.

I could have stopped one of the solemn drivers of these iron monsters and asked them: is there deflagration on going on in the dark chambers of your trusty steed?

But I fear the answer, like the engines, would have taken all day.

Writen in response to Side View’s Machiavellian weekend theme: deflagrate

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39 thoughts on “Less haste, less speed

  1. Big, powerful and slow engines are amazing when seen and heard up close. We rode a couple of old steam narrow gauge trains in Alaska and in Northern California’s Sequoia Forest and they were so much fun.

    1. they are great, but they go way faster than traction engines, Lou. The tortoises of the steam generation. Fun to sit behind on a trailer but when they backfire…to coin a phrase….oy!

  2. Loved this post! Do you have photos of the engines that you can post too? I’d love to see them! Those old steam engines are gorgeous—not quiet, by any means, but they’re just so impressive. My husband and I once went on a ride on an old passenger train still pulled by steam engine, and it was fantastic. There’s just a different vibe to it than when you go by modern rail.

  3. we forget when we think of the romance of that period how incredibly grubby it all was. .. everything was dirty and smelly.. delightfully so.. and coal.. oh my!! c

    1. The smell of coal really is overpowering at these places, Celi. The machines are beautiful to look at -imagines time when they were essential! I saw some old farm machines while I was there….

  4. Well done, Kate.

    There is a wonderful scene in Cranford, the BBC production, where the ladies ride the steam engine for the first time, terrified and excited at the same time. I often wonder what it would have felt like “way back when”. Now, I’m usually in a big hurry myself.

    1. It’s a novel thought, what this might have been like for people who had never seen the like, Penny.We went on a trailer behind one of these for a ride around the estate. It was wicked slow, top speed 5 miles an hour. our lives have accelerated beyond all imagination between the time these things were invented, and now.

  5. These magnificent iron horses opened the West. I’m still in awe of them as I sit patiently at crossings and feel their thunder as they pass. And I remember as a little girl, when we drove so often from Oklahoma City to Denver, racing the long freight trains westward across the plains. So much history. So much romance.

    1. That pool is really bothering you, isn’t it, Roger? Did the super-shrimps not work? I hear catfish are jolly good at algae removal, thought you would need an army of them and they might get a bit tipsy on chlorine.

  6. Very exciting post — I could envision every inch of the steam engine you described but I must admit I was completely baffled when you mentioned a Zimmer frame. I just always knew it as a walker on this side of the pond. I’m getting more out of reading your blog than the seven years of my life I pissed away at university. Looking forward to seeing your steam engine pix!

    1. Steam engine pix in situ on the post now, Lameadventures 🙂 ‘Walker’ is so much more succinct than zimmer frame, but the latter sounds really good in a stand-up gag.

      1. Kate, I will find some way to incorporate zimmer fame into my vocabulary or else I’m not the spawn of Rufus T. Firefly! Thanks for posting the pix!

  7. Dear Kate, this whole posting begs for you to write something on whether any past time we call “Golden” actually was. And what does “A Golden Age” really mean in today’s terms or in the time in which it was lived. Any niggling ideas for such a posting?????? Peace.

    1. Very good point indeed, Dee. I suppose by the golden age of steam I mean the time when steam was the primary way to transport and get jobs done. Golden, because steam was seen as a do-all. Indeed: it is the perfect post fodder 🙂

    1. I love steam trains. Steam engines give me asthma and make me feel queasy because they remind me of being morning sick in a house with a coal fire.

      That was probably too much information.

  8. Popping noises, back firing, detonation, deflagration. I was thinking along the lines of; oh, never mind. This was fun to read.

  9. Being from a railroad family I have been to more railroad museums and historical events than most, I’m quite sure. Surprisingly it’s really only recently become an interest of mine. We went to a wonderful exhibit this summer that highlighted 100 years of the Union Pacific, the company my husband works for, and I came home with another pile of books. I’m so glad you had this wonderful opportunity. I think steam engines are beautiful and I’m not sure I have experienced the TNT kick you describe, or have I just forgotten! We’ll have to investigate! D

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