It was only days later, once I was back on the ground in the United States, on a surprisingly balmy winter afternoon, that I allowed the enormity of it to wash over me.
I got drenched in Sheffield. I basked in sunshine the following, brisk morning whilst experiencing the joys of Nottingham and its sleek modern trams for the first time in the company of new friend Jack Gordon. And I had seen the sights of multicultural Leicester from the top decks of bouncy, fast-moving Arriva buses.
The welcome I received at Manchester’s Heaton Park Tramway was the icing on a lovely cake. Not just a casual Sunday visitor. Not just another rabid tramorak with a camera. No, the lads I had come to know from Facebook and other Internet exchanges welcomed me warmly, as Joe Savage introduced me round the tramshed as Roger, “from America,” the chap with the tramway blog.
Of course I would have been perfectly happy had my visit consisted of meeting the volunteers and enthusiasts and getting to ride the museum’s new star, streamlined 1937 Blackpool Brush car 623. But no. Joe managed to arrange a little hands-on experience with another comparatively recent arrival, Stockport 5.
It is fitting, perhaps, that the first (and for the moment only) vehicle I ever drove in Britain was not a fume-blowing automobile but a zippy four-wheeled Edwardian tramcar. The Preston-built 1901 open-topper is not the first tram I have ever driven, of course. That distinction belongs to DC Transit 766 (as it was then still called; read more here), a 1918 product of Ohio’s G.C. Kuhlman Co. which rang down the curtain on Washington’s streetcar system 50 years and one day before my visit to Heaton Park. I was allowed behind the controls of that car on a misty August afternoon in 1987, then not quite 14, at the original National Capital Trolley Museum in Wheaton, Md.
A dozen years would pass before I once again notched a streetcar into motion, when the good folks at the Halton County Radial Railway allowed me to take a massive steel Toronto Peter Witt car for a spin one sunny summer day. That was a good 12 or 13 years ago. Thus, each of my tram-driving experiences has been in a different country and separated by more than a decade. At this rate, perhaps I should plan on driving a Melbourne tram sometime around 2025 …
So the experience was not unfamiliar when Heaton Park’s Bob Hill began my tutorial before I inched Stockport 5 out of the depot yard and onto the main line. Quite an experience, that, rolling beneath a canopy of trees along the double-track section of line which began life as a siding on the original Manchester tramway system. The museum’s depot was built as a massive passenger shelter for tram passengers visiting the popular municipal park aboard cars like the museum’s premier tram, Manchester “California” car 765 of 1914. Perhaps I didn’t quite look the part of an Edwardian motorman in a hoodie and khakis — likewise Bob in a sturdy flannel coat and stocking cap for such a winter’s day — but Martin James Bryan certainly did in his role as conductor, or “guard” in Manchester parlance. Joe, meanwhile, with his quintessentially modern “high-viz” vest, ran ahead with my camera to shoot the scene for posterity.
No, I was not a stranger to the general concept of driving a conventional early 20th century tramcar. Then again, it was only my third attempt in a quarter-century. The first two cars were large, long, heavy and comparatively advanced North American vehicles with “deadman” controls. Stockport 5 is a rather different animal. Aside from its beautiful vintage bodywork — many British cars were built to essentially Victorian designs well into the 20th century — it is of course tall, but not long, and bouncy on its single four-wheel truck (originally from an Oporto coal car). The only operational aspect that was something of an anomaly (and similar to the other trams I have driven) is that the car is now equipped with air brakes. While not an original feature, that apparently was a requirement for the newly-restored tram to operate on Blackpool’s tramway in the 1990s.
Oh yeah, and it’s surprisingly fast. Power is fed to the motors on conventional trams by slowly rotating a large controller handle through a series of notches. The experienced motorman knows how to do this deftly so that the ride is smooth and comfortable — likewise how to do it without advancing the handle too quickly and blowing a circuit-breaker. I didn’t trip any fuses, but it was obvious that I was every inch a novice. “She’s very forgiving,” Bob gently advised as I piloted the tram, herky-jerky, along the scenic line that now extends past the depot, through wooded areas of the park, across busy footpaths and ultimately ends near the park’s popular boathouse.
Even so, to those of us raised solidly in the automobile age, the swift acceleration after each notch on a tram can be startling. One notch on Stockport 5 produced something like actual motion. Two notches brought us up to a comfortable gait. Three notches was, well, a little exhilarating. At four notches I felt like air-traffic control better have cleared this thing for takeoff.
That was nothing, I gather, compared with how they used to open ‘er up on the wide-open stretches of the Blackpool tramway north of the resort on the line to Fleetwood. One can only imagine. But with many curves and meandering walking paths throughout Heaton Park, serious speed never lasts for long. In fact, it was almost more thrilling to slow Stockport 5 to a walk, gong clanging, as the tram rolled past parkgoers waiting patiently at the crossings and waving. Dogs, cyclists and joggers, on the other hand, made me nervous indeed, fortunately without cause.
I’ve lost track of how many round trips we did; perhaps three. Every time I thought it was time to turn over the controls, Bob seemed all too ready to point me toward the other end of the car to take us back whence we had come. I particularly enjoyed our layovers at the two-track boathouse terminus, where we had to wait for regular service car 623 to depart and make good headway before we followed. These breaks gave me a chance to do more shooting of my own , as well as enjoying a little banter with Joe, Bob and Martin.
As if the tramway weren’t attraction enough, the boathouse — formally the Lakeside Cafe — is another one of the many features which make the 600-acre park so interesting. Overlooking the 12-acre, manmade lake, I was surprised to find the cafe not just open but bustling on a dreary January Sunday. It was a great place to warm up with tea and an Eccles cake as I walked from Heaton Park Metrolink station into the park toward the tramway. (And if you’ve never had an Eccles cake, that’s your loss. Lovely things; look them up. ) This is to say nothing of the many landmarks I didn’t get to see, including majestic Heaton Hall, with its orangery. For more information on the park, visit its website.
My pleasant afternoon in the park ended all too soon. After a few more round-trips as a passenger and a visit to the gift shop, it was time to step off 623 and amble through the park gates. I clumsily fired off a few more shots as the green and cream streamliner quietly rumbled away from the gates, still not quite processing all that had taken place as I briskly walked down Middleton Road toward the Bowker Vale Metrolink station in the gathering dusk. From there it was back to the mighty Manchester Piccadilly railway station and a two-seat train journey into the heart of England once again.
Thanks, lads. I needed a day like that more than you can ever know.