Do the locomotion with Charlie

IT'S a goodly while since I last visited the unique and esoteric Sanday Light Railway: the UK's most northerly passenger railway. Two or three years, I should think, but I remember it fondly.

I first got to know of the place when it was being created by one singularly determined man, Charlie Ridley. He had bought an old croft house with cow byres and in-bye land and was, quite simply, transforming it. Rail-tracks circumnavigated the house, even going through a byre. I took the boys for rides on the steam trains and Miles and I had a go at driving them.

In 2003 the railway changed hands and went quiet for a couple of years. Last year I heard that Charlie, after two years "sooth", had returned to the island, bought back his creation and was restoring and extending it. This was excellent news: every small island community benefits from such a colourful character and an unusual croft diversification.

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The railway is on the southernmost stretch of Sanday Island, on the head of the dragon. It is a stunning spot, above a rugged cliff coastline overlooking the aptly named Lashy Sound which divides us from Eday.

Even on calm days the channel of water rips and churns and lashes to the tune of its underlying tides and currents. Beyond stand the fabulous red sandstone cliffs of Eday and Calf of Eday, glowing in the sunlight. It's a breathtaking, inspirational place where one just doesn't want to go indoors.

When I visit, Charlie and his partner Alison show me their plans and I can immediately see that they have come up with the perfect design for the spot.

Along the seaward side of the existing byre they are building a 55ft sunroom, which Alison will run as the Brief Encounters Tearoom. Perfect: I can't wait for it to open at Easter.

Of course, if you want more than the comforts of fresh coffee and scrumptious chocolate cake in a warm place with a magnificent view, Charlie will be ready for you with his locos. He has two steam locomotives, named Elenor and Molly, each capable of pulling the weight of 40 adults. Three diesel locos - namely Eday, Sanday and Papay - are perhaps less romantic, but can be revved up at short notice (it takes 50 minutes to raise a good head of steam on Elenor and Molly). Six passenger carriages will be on site soon, including a rare Cromar White first-class carriage. A two-car Pullman train will complete the rolling passenger stock.

I'm intrigued by the presence of a horsebox which looks identical to my own. This is how the rolling stock has been transported all the way through Britain to our wee island. We have a laugh about horse power and temperamental fillies who kick out at the box sides if not looked after properly on long journeys.

The box has also transported north two fine thoroughbred steeds: Harley Davidson bikes, a 1976 Shovelhead and a brilliant-yellow Heritage Softail. These are Charlie and Alison's playthings, for whizzing around the island during their time off from trains and tearooms.

Last year Charlie had a spell in coronary care and his doctor advised him to buy a bike to help him increase his fitness. These are perhaps not quite what the doctor ordered.

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I'm shown through the byres, which are busy being transformed into waiting room, tearoom, toilets, engine room and workshop. Railway memorabilia abounds: lamps and signs, LNER uniforms, Pears soap advertisements and so on. It is quite another world in here. I vaguely recognise a set of small windows gracing a waiting room wall and Charlie reminds me that I gave them to him a few years ago when I was renovating my house. Ah good, the art of recycling has not died out.

Outside again we are met by Mr P, the sleek, black, station cat. I'm shown the extension route for the rail track and the place where Orkney's only level crossing is to be. The local farmer who will have to cross it to get to his fields is apparently tickled pink by the prospect.