His day job involves jetting around the globe for the Government. But back home in Sussex, Alan Cobden lets off steam as a guard on a restored railway line.

Now he is being given the chance to do just that, thanks to a brief respite between foreign postings for him and wife Karen.

Since joining the Foreign Office in 1970, Alan's work has taken him to Australia, Iran during the time of the Shah, India, Communist Bulgaria, Dublin and Los Angeles.

He has worked his way up from junior clerk to British consul-general.

But for the past few months Alan has been able to don his guard's cap and indulge in his favourite pastime on the Bluebell steam railway in Sussex.

The couple returned from a five-year stint in Los Angeles, where Alan was deputy British Consul, to their home in Burgess Hill in February.

They are heading off again next month to Alexandria in Egypt, a city of more than three million people, where Alan will work at the Consulate-General.

But before returning to his hectic job dealing with distressed British citizens, Alan has been making the most of his time on the peaceful restored railway.

He said: "People have often commented on the contrast between my real job and my hobby.

"My job entails dealing with problems, such as helping British people injured in accidents or tourists who have run out of money or lost their passports.

"The Bluebell is a total contrast - it's full of smiles. Seeing the looks of excitement and wonder on children's faces is what it's all about. I meet a lot of people, as I do in my job, but these are all happy.

"Even if I've been away for years I'm always welcomed back as though it's only been a few weeks. I just phone up and say I'm back and I'm put straight on the roster.

"It's a way of keeping rooted in Sussex, even though I'm so often away."

Originally from Newhaven, Alan, 48, started volunteering at the Bluebell Railway at Sheffield Park in 1970, the same year he joined the Foreign Office. He discovered the railway while doing a school project on trains and volunteered.

Alan's wife Karen, 47, made a career change when she joined the Foreign Office in the Seventies. She had previously toured Europe as part of an ice skating show.

The couple met in 1979 when they both worked in the British Consulate in Bombay, and married in a church in the Malabar Hills, overlooking the city.

Despite meeting Pierce Brosnan at the Bafta Awards in Los Angeles last year, Alan says the life of a diplomat is not as glamorous as many people believe.

He said: "I've lost track of the number of film stars we've met over the years but it's not all about sipping cocktails round the pool. A lot of my work is helping British companies abroad so I've toured a lot of factories.

"But I have had a wonderful time travelling and finding out about other cultures. We are now moving from Los Angeles, which has a culture going back 150 years, to Alexandria, which has a 5,000-year heritage.

"I'm looking forward to helping British companies do business in Egypt. We have links with Sussex Enterprise, based in Burgess Hill, so I may find myself dealing with local companies when I get there."