Thomas the tourist engine
WE had just arrived at the Glenbrook Railway Station near Waiuku New Zealand, when who should come strolling down the platform but Sir Topham Hat, better known as the Fat Controller, resplendent in black top hat and yellow waistcoat, hand extended in greeting.
Six-year-old Jamie was delighted.
And he was even more pleased when the Fat Controller shook his hand, asked his name, posed for a picture and said, "Pleased to meet you."
When the Fat Controller asked Jamie which was his favourite among the various engines, originally from the Island of Sodor but these days regularly found at Glenbrook, he quickly replied, "Thomas."
The Fat Controller nodded his approval. "Good choice."
Just then four-year-old Liam looked across the railway tracks, pointed and shouted, "There's Thomas."
And, sure enough, there was Thomas the Tank Engine, smiling happily and taking lots of happy families for rides.
After that there was no option but to walk down the platform, over the lines at the level crossing, and across the field lined with stalls offering everything from facepainting and colouring-in to toffee apples and doughnuts, to join the queue for a ride.
We climbed on board an open car and hung on tight when the uniformed guard warned, "Watch out for the Troublesome Trucks," which was just as well because, when Thomas gave a warning toot, puffed out a cloud of black smoke and headed off down his short stretch of line, the trucks certainly did their best to shake us off balance.
The boys loved it, leaning out the side of the truck and waving at the cheery crowds alongside the track, big smiles on their faces, and the oldies looked pretty happy too.
The Glenbrook Vintage Railway Society runs a special Day Out With Thomas every now and again - as well as its regular weekend operating days from Labour Weekend to Queens Birthday - and they're always great fun. We've taken two lots of grandchildren there and they all love it.
This time, as well as going for a short ride with Thomas, we also took a trip into the countryside on Bulgy, the grumpy double-decker bus, met Trevor, the magnificent 100-year-old traction engine, and posed for photos on Rusty, the little diesel.
But the highlight - apart from meeting Thomas of course - was a 50-minute return trip on one of the big steam trains with a stop-off at Pukeoware where the railway society has its workshops and several other engines are stored.
For this journey from yesteryear, a reminder of the days when travel was romantic and trains had character, we waited at the elegant old station, the train arrived right on time - just like in the good old days - and we all climbed into a lovely, shiny wooden carriage smelling of coal smoke and with soot on the floor.
The station master checked his pocket watch, touched his shiny peaked cap, rang the station's brass bell, and with a toot and a great cloud of smoke we were on our way.
Naturally we all stuck our heads out the windows, breathed in the smoke billowing from the engine, smiled at the cows grazing peacefully in the fields, waved at the motorists who didn't seem to mind waiting for us at the railway crossings, watched while the crew gave the engine a drink of water at a wonderful leaky wooden water tower, and had a fantastic time.
The only concern was that we didn't recognise the engine we were on. And no one else seemed to know his name either.
Fortunately, down the carriages came a very knowledgeable-looking female guard, in a wonderfully impressive uniform, and after she had clipped our tickets I asked who was pulling the train.
"Oh," she said, "this is Tom, Thomas's New Zealand friend. And the other train running today is being pulled by Diana."
Well, of course we had recognised Diana, because of her luxuriant eyelashes.
And when we got to the workshop at Pukeoware we easily picked out James with his distinctive moustache.
But we hadn't heard of Tom before.
Still, he gave us a great ride, and I'm sure the Rev Wilbert Awdry, who wrote the Thomas the Tank engine books 60 years ago, would have been delighted to add a Kiwi engine to his family.
Indeed, if any proof were needed of how the Rev Awdry's family has spread around the globe it came as we walked back to the car park after a delightful day.
An Asian family had just arrived and their small son pointed over the road and excitedly shouted several sentences in his native language of which we could recognise just one word: "Thomas."