WHEN he retired from his working life as a chartered civil engineer, John Garwood was eager to pursue his passion for the railways – but it’s fair to say he got more than he bargained for.

John, now a 71-year-old grandad-of-two, is one of the dedicated band of volunteers who do such a splendid job on the Embsay and Bolton Abbey Steam Railway in the Yorkshire Dales.

In two decades or more of volunteering, he’s clocked up 2,500 or so journeys on the line in the pretty North Yorkshire district of Craven.

It was a joy to be allowed to join John and fireman Matthew Berry on the footplate for one of those journeys last week and to hear about some of the highlights of his time as a railway volunteer.

John’s especially proud to have been a trainee fireman when the line to Bolton Abbey was opened back in 1998. “It was a privilege to be part of the crew on that first run,” he says.

But perhaps even more memorable was the time he was driving the train, halfway to Bolton Abbey, when he couldn’t believe his eyes at the sight up ahead.

“I was driving a big old diesel that day and I saw a girl lying on the track and she was stark naked,” he recalls. “A young fella, presumably her boyfriend, was busy taking photographs of her with the train in background,” he recalls.

Naturally, John tooted his whistle, the girl jumped up, pulled on her dress, and the pair of them “hot-footed” it over a fence and across the field.

Did he recognise her? “Well, I wasn’t looking at her face,” smiles John who’s never got to the bottom of the naughty photographic assignment.

“Maybe it was some kind of modelling job, or all in the name of art, I don’t really know, but it was the strangest thing I’ve seen in all my years working on the railway,” he says.

As we reminisce, we are travelling on an old steam engine called Cumbria – built in 1945 and originally owned by the War Department – and John clearly loves his life as a volunteer with the Yorkshire Dales Railway Museum Trust.

His passion for the railways was stirred as a boy growing up in Newton-le-Willows, near Bedale. The Wensleydale Railway passed his house, so he used to join his mother on shopping expeditions to Northallerton and Hawes, quickly becoming intoxicated by steam.

“My life wouldn’t be the same without it,” he says, brushing beads of sweat from his brow as fireman Berry manfully shovels more coal into the boiler and Cumbria hisses with hungry appreciation.

The first train of the day departs at 10.30am but John and Matthew have been at it since 6.30am, lighting the fire, carrying out safety checks on the springs and nuts and bolts, then oiling all the points.

“We do it because we love it, it’s like being part of a family,” says John.

It’s a friendly family too, starting with a warm welcome on the platform from Bob Bonsall, 77, who’s stationmaster on the day in question but also serves as a driver, signalman and guard when required.

Bob, a volunteer for 40 years, spent his working life servicing sewing machines, mainly in Britain’s prisons, where the inmates made clothes, including demob suits for soldiers, and uniforms for postmen. These days, the prisons have been swapped for the freedom of the Yorkshire Dales and the sewing machines replaced by bigger, grander machines that have enthusiasts flocking to this peaceful part of the country.

Meanwhile, inside the beautifully-restored carriages of Cumbria, Mike Walsh is busy looking after the passengers in his particularly important role as Head of Fundraising, encouraging donations in return for pens, fridge-magnets and bookmarks and other memorabilia.

The trust is aiming to raise £300,000 to restore Wheldale, a rusty old loco that stands in the sidings at Bolton Abbey station. Built in 1944, Wheldale was one of the first batches of Austerity locomotives to be built for the war effort. After serving the Army for a few years, it worked for the National Coalboard, and was the last steam loco in the Yorkshire coalfields before being taken out of service in 1982.

“People come here because of a shared passion for the railways and they’re so generous when it comes to supporting us – we can raise £400 on a good day,” says Mike, who happily reports that the appeal is already more than a third of the way towards its target after three years of fundraising.

It means that project co-ordinator and engineer John Beesley is confident of starting the restoration work next year, with the aim of Wheldale to replacing the old workhorse, Cumbria, by 2025.

In the meantime, the affable John Garwood will go on getting up at the crack of dawn to travel from his home in Harrogate to prepare and drive the engines that have become such an important part of his life.

He wants to go on volunteering on the Embsay and Bolton Abbey Railway well into the future, saying: “Steam gets in your blood – it’s as simple as that.”

In view of past experiences, he might just as easily have described it as the bottom line.

• To make a donation, go to: www.embsayboltonabbeyrailway.org.uk/aboutus/wheldale

• To volunteer on the Embsay and Bolton Abbey Railway, go to www.embsayboltonabbeyrailway.org.uk/aboutus/volunteering