16 August 2002

RALLYFOR

ASTEAMYROMANCE

A steam rally doesnt seem

the obvious place to find

romance but Joan Biggar

tells a different tale

STEAM fairs and rallies may seem very macho. But they are popular with women as well, and romance can blossom as easily among the exhibits of heavy machinery as it would if the field was filled only with wild flowers.

"Events like this can bring an attendance of between 30,000-40,000 people besides the 2000-3000 exhibitors," I was assured by Graham Whitwell at the annual steam fair in Pickering, North Yorkshire.

Graham restores and renovates the kind of steam engines his Dad used to drive for a living in the days when they were used for many jobs in agriculture. The arrival of the threshing mill at harvest time was a big event on the farming calendar. When he met Beverley, the lady who is now his partner, the venue for their first date was a steam rally.

"I enjoyed it so much Ive never missed one since," Beverley recalled. The couple have three children now, Sarah, Philip and Bradley, aged 12, nine and five, each of whom rides a little steam engine made by their Dad. These chug along at a cracking pace of 8mph, and the kids love them.

"Bradley was only five weeks old when we took him to his first steam rally," she went on, "and already he loved the atmosphere, and being lulled to sleep by music powered by the showmens engines at the carnival."

The Whitwell family are famous on the steam scene, and Grahams collection includes rarities like a Fowler showmans engine and a McLaren 1038 which was built in 1909 and restored in 1968 when Graham, who is now 40, was five.

"At home, our kids ride on their engines in the broad driveway, and a couple of fields adjoining the house," Beverley said. "Graham has also made miniature engines for their cousins, Christopher and Emma. He gives courses in engine driving too, but my role in those is making the bacon sandwiches. The one day course ends with a ride round the Vale of York."

There is not a lot of upkeep involved in steam engines but their boilers have to be tested regularly to make sure they are safe. Sometimes sparks fly from a good going engine, and this is the one thing about them which Beverley doesnt like! But she relishes the fun the whole family have at the fairs and rallies attended with enthusiasts.

"There are about a dozen big ones. The season starts at Easter and goes right through to September. Weve made lots of friends from all over the country through eventing in this way and we meet up regularly."

One of these friends is Jill Cohen, who, like Beverley, admits to having a steamy romance.

"I met my partner nine years ago, at the Isle of Wight steam rally," she recalled. "It was love at first sight. He drives a full sized steam engine and also had a canal boat when I met him, but when we moved up to Leeds he sold that and bought me my small steam engine at Harrogate Model Engineering Exhibition. Again it was a case of love at first sight for me, and Ive been driving it for about five years now. Before I got my own little engine I was driving anything I could get my hands on, including full sized ones."

Much as Jill enjoys the summer steam events, she rates the Shipton Mediaeval Market at Christmas as her favourite annual function.

"Of course there were no steam engines in medieval times, but we can say we are providing a glimpse into the future, instead of the past," she laughed. "The Mediaeval Market always has lots of children there. This is the only time when we give them rides, and of course, as a result many will be asking Santa for a steam engine!"

Everyone I met at the steam fair emphasised what a great place such an event was for making friends. Some ladies even made the point that having a steam engine in the family could cut down on matrimonial tiffs, as, when a disgruntled husband stormed out of the house it was often to go no further than the garage or shed housing his engine, in which to have a cooling off period without resorting to the pub!

A steam engine is an important member of many a happy family, and Beverley and Jill are just two of the many women who bless the day their steamy romances began. So if youre feeling forlorn, and hope for an encounter with Cupid, try the steam scene.