In a certain very historic and traditional British seaside town, a little ‘train’ runs up and down the seafront, taking tourists and visitors for a pleasant scenic ride alongside the beach.
It’s a ‘Dotto’ train (some people call them Noddy trains), a special vehicle made by a famous Italian manufacturer. I’m not sure if the engine at the front is petrol, diesel, or electrically powered, but clearly it’s reasonably strong, because of the weight it has to pull. Towed behind it are three carriages, each with several rows of seating. Two have glass windows to protect passengers from the elements, whilst the middle carriage is open to the fresh air. Of course it isn’t really a train – it doesn’t run on rails – which means that this sort of vehicle can be used anywhere there is an appropriately flat and accessible surface and route for it to operate on. In some towns Dotto trains run solely on normal roads, mingling with the traffic. I have also seen them trundle slowly through pedestrian shopping streets, and give rides around country showgrounds, weaving through funfairs and between tractors and showjumping ponies. Most usually, though, they are to be found running along stretches of coastline, wherever there is a long, level esplanade. Sometimes in holiday resorts, they will run between a series of hotels and the beach.
In general, I find them a most pleasant and diverting means of locomotion! Certainly they are as much fun for adults as for children.
This Dotto train is white and rather sullied by carrying overly large advertising banners for a local DIY store and garden centre.
The driver and the guard who sells tickets and helps people on and off, look very similar. They could be brothers – certainly they appear to be good friends. Both are way past retirement but still wiry, energetic and full of humour and enthusiasm. Both are in shorts and sandals, with baseball caps on their heads. Both are missing several teeth, but sporting instead several earrings, gold bracelets and faded tattoos.
Whenever the train stops, they both disembark and keep up a playful exchange with each other, teasing about whether they have forgotten to close any doors, laughing about who-knows-what shared private jokes.
The guard has the most people-focused role and attitude – after all, he serves also as a salesman, encouraging passers-by to hop on for a ride, enticing families, couples and particularly the elderly (of which there are many, here as elsewhere in coastal resorts), to climb aboard.
Two older ladies get on behind me, and keep well abreast of his jovial banter.
“On we get, slowly now,” says the guard.
“I hope you’re not implying I’m old?”
“Of course not my dear, as if I would!”
Two couples get into the middle carriage, and he indicates that they should all sit together.
“You’ll all fit if the ladies squeeze up,” he says with a wink, to giggles from the (not so large) ladies concerned, and whoops from their husbands, who seem to appreciate the humour.
We set off on our ride, past the pier, past the bowling greens and mini golf course, along the pebble beach, with various pleasure and fishing boats pulled up onto it. There are some fishing nets and lobster pots piled up on the shingle, swarming now not with marine life, but with birds – sparrows and pigeons and gulls, all pecking around inside them for traces of fish and lobster-flavoured titbits. Down the side of a somewhat ancient amusement park we trundle, right next to a big paddling pool full of children splashing around and enjoying themselves in the rare summer sunshine. A little further and we are assailed with the smell of popcorn from a café. We have reached the Eastern terminus and are invited to step down for a cup of tea or an ice cream, as there will be a 15 minute break before the land train sets off again. I sit in the sunshine, looking at the beautiful calm sea, and listening to the guard and the driver chatting about their families, as they sit at a café table with mugs of tea – legs stretched out in front of them, arms crossed, and caps pulled down against the sun.
Soon we’re off again, back to the main part of the seafront, where I have to sit and wait for more passengers to join the train, and start to regret slightly having been talked into taking both legs of the route. I find myself admiring once more (surely a sign of approaching old age) the huge yellow and orange blooms of the marigolds in the public gardens. There are no marigolds more glorious than these!
Next it’s past the lifeboat museum, crawling as we wait for half-naked youngsters on their way to the beach to get out of the way, and alongside rows of seaside chalets and an assortment of benches and shelters. How delightful the British seaside experience can be, how relaxing and pleasant for those with time on their hands. It’s busier here, and everyone loves the Dotto train. Everywhere children smile and wave with excitement at its passing, and I obligingly wave back on every occasion.
Now the Western terminus, under the cliffs, and another café, where another cup of tea and slab of cake beckons. I sit and watch seagulls swooping for crumbs and jackdaws walking nonchalantly across empty tables.
The driver and the guard are once again partaking of refreshments. What an amazing job – or is it pastime – they have! Riding all day up and down along the beach, from one end to the other, and having a nice long sit at each end with a cuppa! No shortage of public toilets (which seem to be more prevalent here than in the whole of London). Nothing in the nature of pressure or problems – from the sound of their constant laughter, they’re rather enjoying their work, with its wonderful scenery and frequent tea-breaks.
Time for the Dotto train to leave again (and for me to head home). More potential customers gather by the waiting vehicle, which is now quite full, and the cheery guard once more explains the route, the options and the prices.
“Aye-up,” he shouts to his colleague the driver – and for the benefit of his audience of passengers – as he helps two more grey-haired ladies into a carriage. “Here’s two more women who don’t want to go all the way!”
Of such delightful characters is the British seaside made!