A story in steam

Of all the modes of transport in the world, my favourite is the train. Trains are more spacious and comfortable than either a plane or a bus (or a donkey cart). They lack the equilibrium-disturbing sway and roll of a boat, or the lurch and petrol-stink of a coach.  I love the fact that trains are almost exactly the same technology now as when they began operation in the 19th Century. I love catching trains through Europe and feeling the miles role away underneath me, and seeing the landscape slide by. And of all trains, the steam train is my very favourite.

On 1 October, I made my way by suburban rail to Belgrave station to catch the Puffing Billy to Emerald to give a talk at Emerald Library.

Doesn’t that sound magical? Belgrave. Puffing Billy. Emerald. Library talk. For me it evokes those wonderful whistle-stop tours undertaken by the likes of Oscar Wilde and Samuel Clements across America. Trains have other literary associations for me, too. Holmes and Watson rattling across the English countryside to investigate some macabre murder; feckless young men in PG Wodehouse comedies fleeing on the milk train from ferocious aunts; the Pevensie children at the station before their last great adventure in Narnia; the Hogwarts Express; the Little Engine that Could.

Puffing Billy reminds me of all those things, and has its own special place in the heart of Victorian. I grew up in several states, so I don’t think I ever went on the inevitable school trip as a kid, but the same sense of adventure and excitement is still there for adults. Travelling by steam train in the modern day to a local library had a wonderful steampunk sensibility about it.

The Saturday that I travelled was a bit cold and wet, but people still braved the weather to sit with their legs handing out the windows as they hung onto the metal railings. We chugged through bushland, over bridges, through hills, periodically wreathed in smoke and steam.  As we rose in altitude, the air got crisper (and chillier). I could see flashes of colour from native parrots darting between trees, and see distant, mist-shrouded hills and lakes. The notes of the whistle as it blows is like a call to adventure on our way to Emerald.

There’s another literary association for you. Emerald City. Emerald is actually a lovely little country town, one of the stops on Puffing Billy’s route. After recent rain, the town is as green as its name implies. Tim even found a great new café serving excellent coffee just over the road from the library where I delivered my talk on Building Believable Fantasy Worlds. I love those talks. I’m no Clements or Wilde, but I thoroughly enjoy talking to readers and writers and sharing my love of the written word with them. This Oz did not have a man behind the curtain, but it was full of people asking wonderful questions about how to start their own great adventures in writing.

After the talk, we walked back to Emerald Station to catch the Puffing Billy back to Belgrave, this time from the warmth and comfort of the dining car. While pumpkin juice was noticeably lacking, there was lashings of tea, biscuits and fruit cake, the cheerful attentions of the lovely staff and more of those luscious green views before our return to the Big Smoke.

And so ends a day steeped in literary memories, bookish discussion, an appreciation of the Australian countryside and the delights of Victorian-era technology in a hyper-connected cyber world. In other words, a pretty perfect day.

Tim and I travelled as guests of the Puffing Billy Railways.