The Year of the Mallard
For some time, Britain has been rediscovering its railway history. A number of things have contributed to this: the coming of the new-build express locomotive ‘Tornado’, and the growth of the heritage railway industry beyond a certain critical mass are perhaps the two most recent. Another is a series of television programmes fronted by former Tory minister Michael Portillo, travelling the railways of the country and looking at their history and background. The irony of this is remarkable; I for one have not watched any of Portillo’s programmes because I could not stomach someone whose political party made such a mess out of the railways portraying himself as a friend of the system. But it has to be admitted that he has raised the profile of Britain’s railways generally. (He has also fronted a series on European railways, which frankly makes my gorge rise even further; in any case, the coverage it gives European railways can only be superficial.)
But this increase in public interest in our railway history has come at an appropriate time, This year is the 75th anniversary of the world speed record for steam traction being captured by the London and North Eastern Railway’s class A4 locomotive no.4464, Mallard. That record, of 126 mph, is now regularly broken by the modern trains of various operators; but in 1938 it was an unheard-of speed, only narrowly exceeded by the fastest cars or aeroplanes. The war that followed within the year pushed technological development in a range of spheres, and absolute speeds increased immensely; but Mallard‘s record has never been exceeded by steam traction.
The National Railway Museum (NRM) in York was determined to mark this event, though they were probably still smarting from their ‘Railfest’ event in 2012, which was supposed to be the biggest railway festival in the country in living memory, but which failed to reach anticipated admission targets, in part down to last year’s appalling summer weather. Four A4 class locomotives remain in the UK, but someone came up with the idea of going one step further; reuniting all six surviving A4s, which would mean temporarily repatriating two locomotives sent to North America in the 1960s, when the class was withdrawn. Dwight D. Eisenhower in the USA and Dominion of Canada in – wait for it! – Canada had both been static exhibits in their respective museums for just over forty years, and the deal was that the locomotives would be returned to the UK for about a year, be restored externally, and would then be returned to their existing locations.
The NRM planned a series of events, with the aid of various corporate sponsors; all six engines were to be displayed in York during July, would then move to their outstation at Shildon in Country Durham during August and September, and then would return to York in the late Autumn before being returned to their respective owners. But from a photographic point of view, the July show in York was going to be the best bet because by the time the six A4s return to York in October, there would be far less light available for good photography. Shildon would most likely be less crowded, but a 320-mile round trip in a day, or an overnighter, seemed very much like a non-starter. So I decided that I had to make the trip to York in July.
Next question – how to get there, car or rail? The NRM is well placed to make a visit by rail, but surprisingly, it’s harder to get direct trains there than it used to be. When I went up for Railfest by train, I had to change once on the way up, just one station on from where I usually join trains for the north, in Tamworth, because Cross Country employ “skip-stopping” – to keep their trains to time, they minimise the number of intermediate stops they make at stations where passengers do not have to make connections, and the train I needed to use in the morning didn’t stop at Tamworth but did stop at Burton, little more than ten minutes further on. The journey back was even more problematical; I had to make two changes, and in one case the available time was less than three minutes. I’d thought of using a different route to get back, with only one intermediate change and a leeway of ten minutes, but when I got on the train to start that journey, it had been delayed by more than ten minutes because of a door problem that arose.
Bearing that experience in mind, and taking into account the amount of kit I’d be taking with me, I’d decided to drive instead. It would be a good test of the new Mercedes on a long trip, and at least I knew the air conditioning in the car worked! And the cost worked out about equal when I took station parking into account. Rather than try parking in York itself, I intended to use the Park & Ride service; the Green Line, which runs from Rawcliffe Bar on the northern side of the city, serves the NRM directly for the princely sum of £2.60!
I was making good time until I was just a mile or so from the York ring road; then I got tangled up in a road traffic accident that had just happened, and got delayed by a good hour. It was probably well past 1:30 pm when I arrived at Rawcliffe Bar, but I was pleased to see that there was a bus waiting. Little more than 15 minutes later, I was getting off at the NRM – to be faced with what I was told was a 40-minute queue to get in. Stewards were commenting that earlier in the day, it had been more like two hours’ queuing time; yet it seemed little more than twenty minutes before I was passing into the museum.
I had not really been prepared for the sort of crowds that thronged the museum. It was like rush hour on the Tube, or the January sales. The A4s were arrayed on one side of the turntable, and the turntable itself was open for visitors to get a general view of the group of engines (a rare event in itself). It was noticeable that very many people were paying attention to Mallard, a locomotive normally resident at York. Obviously, many of these visitors had never seen Mallard before, even though Dwight D. Eisenhower and Dominion of Canada were the engines that the true cognoscenti had come to see…
But there is more to see in the NRM than six A4s, no matter how rare visitors two of them might be. When I went to Railfest, I was ostensibly helping out some friends with a trade stand, and only had time to look at the outdoor exhibits; my previous visit to the NRM had been on a trip by Sutton Modellers in 2007; we visited the NRM in the morning and the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington in the afternoon, but that schedule meant that there was only time at the NRM to make one circuit of the site at a brisk walk. My plan for this visit was to stay until closing time, when hopefully the crowds would have thinned out a bit. And so I was able to see some of the other exhibits that the crowds were paying less attention to; visit the Station Hall, the old York central goods depot which was opened as a temporary museum when the NRM’s roof needed extensive renovation during the 1990s, and turned out to be so successful that when the Great Hall’s renovation was complete, the Station Hall was retained as a fine piece of scene setting for some of the exhibits; and to wander through the Warehouse, the NRM’s small exhibits storeroom, which resembles nothing so much as a railway version of the warehouse seen at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark…
The whole museum was benefitting from the increased visitor numbers: given the high levels of footfall, it was hard to find any part of the site that wasn’t busy. But there were other nice things to see: there are a few examples of unrestored engines and stock on site, which provide an interesting contrast with the bright, shiny restored museum exhibits (one of these ‘as found’ exhibits was an intact carriage from the narrow gauge Lynton and Barnstaple Railway in North Devon, complete with a fading and gloriously decrepit interior); staff had put a display of station luggage handling on in the Station Hall, with an assortment of period barrows loaded up with an assortment of period luggage; outside, the replica of Stephenson’s Rocket, built for the 150th anniversary of the Rainhill Trials in 1977, stood, having only recently been in steam; Flying Scotsman could be found in the workshop, nearing the end of its second restoration in five years, due to her condition being much worse than originally thought; and in a dark corner could be seen languishing City of Truro, the Great Western engine reputed to be the first to exceed 100mph in 1904 (though controversy rages over that claim). And as a dyed-in-the-wool Derby lad, I was very pleased to see the Midland Railway ‘Spinner’ No.673, even if it is “trapped” in a platform road in the Station Hall; I saw this engine steamed in the early 1980s when it was outstationed with the Midland Railway Trust at Butterley in Derbyshire, and it would be nice to see it in that condition again. I suppose the earliest that could be justified would be the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Midland Railway, due in 2019 – any takers?
I was also surprised and pleased to see an old locomotive friend, in the form of a tiny Peckett 0-4-0 industrial saddle tank with implausibly small wheels, which had been owned by the late Reverend Teddy Boston, perhaps the most extreme of that epitome of the British eccentric, the railway enthusiast clergyman. His rectory at Cadeby in Leicestershire – not too many miles from my home – was packed with railway memorabilia and a fine collection of model railways; there was a huge model railway in a shed outside, a 2 foot gauge line around the garden, traction engines in the yard and this Peckett, sometimes at Cadeby and sometimes to be found on the nearby ‘Battlefield Line’ at Shackerstone. Amidst all that, he also found time to pursue his calling as a parish vicar! I had no idea where this engine had gone to after the collection was broken up after his death, so I was interested to come across it in the outdoor annexe at York.
All in all, the NRM is worth visiting even if you don’t have a massive interest in railways, as it tries to display a microcosm of British life from the 1840s or thereabouts up to the 1960s, as seen through the nation’s transport infrastructure. It encompasses social history and art and design as well as the engineering. It also has a few really quite odd exhibits, such as a first-generation driving car from the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train, circa 1964, which makes an interesting comparison with the high-speed trains passing by outside the museum; and a massive canvas by the railway artist Terence Cuneo of the concourse of Waterloo station, made at about the same time, which has a wealth of detail and some glorious visual jokes.
A large number of people had the same idea as me, and the crowds barely began to thin out much before a few minutes before closing time at 6pm. “Who said no-one’s interested in steam railways any more?” asked one chap in the huddle of photographers trying to get that last, elusive clear shot of one of the visiting A4s. I replied with the late Alan Coren’s quip about “…you could understand people being trainspotters when the trains were worth looking at; nowadays, they just look like Tetra-Paks.”
Nonetheless, with a bit of perseverance, I was able to secure reasonably clear pictures of each engine (though I already had plenty of Mallard itself from Railfest, when it was repositioned outside); and the rest of the time, I just had to be creative. (I did take quite a few pictures with crowds obscuring different parts of the engines at different times, with a view to performing a ‘cut-and-shut’ in Photoshop later, but in the end it wasn’t really necessary.)
I came away with some excellent pictures in the bag. It had been quite hard work, but for the chance to see such a collection of engines together, including two I’d be unlikely to ever see again without a lot of travelling, it was worth the time and expense spent in getting to and from York. And the traffic on the way home was quite gentle, too!