The noise made us both turn, the Casey-Jones-a-wheelin'-and-a-rollin' noise, the unmistakable noise of Victorian certainty and pride in engineering, and we looked over the top of a building and there sure enough was a puff of smoke or steam, and I looked at her and she looked me, and I said "shall we?" and she said "of course," and to the extent that we are capable of scampering, she being 67 and I being not far behind, we scampered across the road and up the little hill 'till we stood on the top panting and down below us was the estuary and beside it a strip of land on which runs half a mile or so of pointless resurrected railway track and round the corner, to the delight of us both, came a steam train.
I am just old enough to remember steam trains that weren't museum exhibits, that were functioning engines pulling paying loads, and I was scared of them. I was scared of the noise they made as they drew into the station, of the great gouts of steam or smoke that shrouded them and of the very size of them, their metal vastness.
But then they disappeared. By the time I was 6 or 7 the last of them had been replaced by diesel or electric engines that no child ever feared or ever loved.
This train in front of us was no Casey-Jones machine. It towed just three toytown carriages, and it went slowly and made little smoke, and with its tall and narrow funnel it looked more like Stephenson's Rocket than the Flying Scotsman.
And that was apt for when I looked it up later that afternoon I found that it was built by Neilson and Company of Glasgow in 1872, just 40 years after the famous Rocket. This was steam in its infancy. This machine was almost as old as New Zealand. When it was built Napoleon was still a living memory.
And people had restored it to working order, had spent who knows how many thousand volunteer hours repairing and refurbishing it, in order that it should steam again.
Does anyone do that for a diesel train, for an electric one? I doubt it.
There is something about steam trains. Even I, who am the obverse of an engineer, who have no interest in or understanding of technology, who never lifts the bonnet of my car, even if the damn thing stops, am pleased by steam trains. They have an aura of romance.
It's partly due to story telling. Sherlock Holmes and Anna Karenina took steam trains. The steam railroad starred in wild west movies. Virgins tied to the tracks were saved from their great iron wheels only at the last minute. (A diesel engine, of course, would have sliced them like salami.)
When Matthew Arnold first saw a steam train ploughing through the English countryside he is said to have said, "There goes feudalism." For a train went beyond the horizon. It made travel possible for the many as well as the few. For the first time it was easy for the peasant to leave the valley he was born in.
Like the great ocean liners, the steam train whispered of elsewhere. To climb aboard was to take a step into the unknown, to fling yourself into the arms of fortune.
But there is also the very appearance of the thing. It generates its own clouds, its own weather, from which it emerges with such sleek power. It's like an act of conjuring on stage, a look-at-me.
And a steam train seems alive. It puffs and bellows. You can sense it getting into its stride, its breath becoming fast and rhythmical. Up hills it pants and labours as we do. It seems more than a mere machine.
To drive one is less a skill than an art. Like riding a horse, it's done by feel and touch, with a sense of intimacy. Though I know nothing about such things, I bet that no two steam engines are alike, just as no two horses are.
Furthermore you can see how a steam train works. Its such evident fundamental physics. There's the fire and the shovelled coal. There's the boiler of heated water. And there's the force it generates in those mighty piston arms that link and turn the great iron wheels.
It's Promethean. The quarried coal. The harnessed fire. The metal wrested from the rock. It embodies all of human technological progress. For better or for worse, it's our story in a machine.
Everyone loves a steam train.