Just imagine being in a cramped, small cab that’s shaking, hissing and spitting ash, steam and blistering heat. Read-outs are maxing out into the red; the fireman is shovelling coal onto the burning fire and the driver is trying to maintain control to keep it at its top speed. Gravity is on your side and there’s no head wind on a short section of track and the train blast through stations, over fields and into tunnels. The journey eventually comes to an end and you are elated to just be out of that small sauna on wheels. And then news comes to you. Important news… ‘You’ve travelled faster than any other locomotive in the history of existence. One hundred and twenty-six miles per hour was recorded just outside of Grantham; You’ve broken the World record for the highest top speed of any steam locomotive to ever grace the rails…” or words to that effect. A smile spreads to your face and you realise that this engine is one of a kind. And yet what you don’t know is that this engine will keep its record for seventy-five years. And seventy-five years later LNER’s 4468 Mallard A4 Pacific was returning to the place where she broke that very record.
It wasn’t that long ago since I was in York seeing this very fine engine and her five remaining, streamlined sisters at the National Railway Museum’s ‘Great Gathering of the A4 Pacifics.’ Word got to me that Mallard was taking a very rare trip to where the record was achieved. This was right in my home county of Lincolnshire. The small town of Grantham hosted this special event on the 7th and 8th of September and with it being practically on my doorstep, I couldn’t exactly say no to see this amazing piece of machinery once more. Hyped by Facebook and Twitter, it was apparent that this event was indeed quite extraordinary. Temporary track was laid close to the station and Mallard was ready to be moved from her home in York for the weekend, bypassing through another station just down the road from my home. Naturally, I took time out of my busy summer holiday to wait on the station with a bunch of fellow enthusiasts to see Mallard and a Class 55 Deltic being towed through on the previous Wednesday ready for this one-off celebration. I opted for the 7th, as did a lot of other people. A reported 7000 plus people, young and old came through the gates to see some magnificent engines over the weekend. It was sight to behold as the sun shone throughout the seven hour event. With many opportunities to take photos and get close up to Mallard and Royal Highland Fusilier, it was an incredible day out.
Partnered up the Class 55 “Deltic,” the special event was an informative insight on how the railways progressed from the age of steam, right up to dieselisation in the 1960’s. Deltic was the A4 successor and both were present right here at Grantham.
With only two engines to see, the paddock wasn’t huge and so the event wasn’t as big as originally thought. But people came in droves and these two engines pulled up an incredible crowd on the first day. With different events being held through Grantham that included a model rail exhibit and a collection of vintage sports cars from the 1930’s; the same decade that Mallard rocketed up to her top speed, there was a good amount to see and do, including a few shops and stall, miniature railway rides and an open LNER buffet coach acting as a cafe, as well as helpful volunteers keeping the visitors in the loop on what was going on in and around Grantham over the weekend.
It was great to see the varying amount of people coming to see what was essentially the Concorde of steam locomotion. This very record breaker with its sleek, modern curves, enormous red wheels and an overall presence that dominated the entire paddock showed that this was no ordinary engine and what it had done was no ordinary feat. As I mentioned in my post about the event in York, fast train travel in the 30’s was what every railway company aspired to achieve. LNER went above and beyond to prove that they had the fastest locomotives and Mallard is their swansong.
During the day, Mallard’s cab was open and I couldn’t exactly leave without having a peek. The last time I got close to it was well over ten years ago but this time, visitors could actually go in and on the footplate rather than peeking through! The queue… well the less said about the queue the better, was long. Almost two hours long. That didn’t bother me because it gave me a chance to take lots of pictures and get close to the workings of both Royal Highland Fusilier and Mallard. There was much time discussing with my dad and Grandad about railways and trains and such and there was a good view of the East Coast expresses thundering through Grantham station. Each train that passed through even gave a celebratory blast of the horn in celebration of Mallard’s return.
We also discovered that Deltic’s power output was only 1,600 horsepower per single engine (which in itself is only the same amount of power as two Lamborghini V12’s) and that it produced 100 mph; so sadly, it wasn’t even the fastest train there. Nit-picking aside, being so close to either engine, we managed to get a good look around the workings, in a way that wasn’t entirely possible when we were at the museum in July.
Sadly, the queues for the Deltic were long also, so unfortunately we had to give that cabin tour a miss, however, it didn’t go unappreciated. It was a welcome addition to the event and struck interest amongst those who preferred the more modern-day, cleaner, more reliable high-speed express trains – my dad included. Royal Highland Fusilier made the event that little bit more special and gave something else to look over. Although personally I prefer the old-fashioned rip-snorting steam engines, the Deltic symbolises how much modern-day, fast travel meant to people travelling up and down the country and as such has become an icon in its own right, with this being one of only six left.
The queue eventually got shorter and shorter and we got much closer to Mallard. I for was getting excited. I had never been in the cab before and so this was the highlight of the trip. I finally got to live out my boyhood dream. The sense of what once was and how hectic it all would have been in there on that 3rd of July with the crew battling with an iron monster, keeping every valve, dial and lever in check whilst it seared through the Lincolnshire countryside. Every little detail about it told its own story from the regulator that pushed the engine to bursting to the wooden floor-boards under my feet. There was one thing that I couldn’t leave without doing. I went and sat in the driver’s seat. I couldn’t help myself…
The free event, although small, was grand enough to matter to the enthusiastic but also small enough to give a flying visit. The vintage buses ferrying people to and from the station was neat touch but the real star was of course seeing something that has meant so much to me for such a long time (again). There’s a picture of me when I was much younger being dwarfed by the front buffers and not much has changed – I still feel dwarfed by this colossus; the sense of every bit of Mallard working in harmony to do the very best. These two iconic parts of British Rail history coming together made a very nice day, if some-what on the small. No! ‘Small’ is the wrong word. Quaint, I think suits it better; personal; involved. A lot of people may not know about Mallard and the record-breaking event but I’m guessing a fair few who went just out of curiosity know about how important this really was. We overheard a gentleman from the museum say that Mallard is the most popular attraction. With the amount of people at Grantham on that eventful and somewhat nostalgic Saturday, it’s amazing to see that this seventy-five year old spectacle of engineering is still peaking interest amongst thousands of people from all over the world. It’s highly inspiring that this nation can create so much hype over what was essentially a quicker way to get to and from London or Edinburgh. As steam ventured out of mainline service, it has preserved that record. Mallard’s success has created something that not a lot of railway locomotives will ever do. She has created a legacy that will last for an eternity.
Keep up to date with Mallard’s celebrations by checking out @railwaymuseum, nrm.org.uk or /nationalrailwaymuseum
Alternatively, check out #Mallard75, @mallardgrantham and mallardatgrantham.co.uk