Stretham Old Engine
Sunday, 11th July 2010


In Cambridge we live on the outskirts of Fenland. Originally marshland this was drained by first wind-driven pumps and then steam pumps (and then diesel and then electric but they're less romantic.) Stretham Old Engine is a surviving example of the convoluted steam pumps that bled the Fens dry. It's open for a few days each year, and I took my father on July 11th as he wanted to photograph the beam for one of his slideshows.

The machinery itself is a marvellous puzzle of shafts and bearings and cranks and gears and things that spin round. The massive main beam at the top of treacherous staircases rises and falls very slowly. It is almost alive, a dinosaur in wood coloured metal. Very inefficient, the boiler relied on atmospheric pressure to move anything. It took a day or two to get steam up to start the engine, and persuading the engine to start pulsating was hit or miss. The electric motors which now do the same job are about the same size as a postbox.