Thomas the Tank Engine 70th Anniversary Special

It’s no secret; I like trains.

And a lot of that I owe to a little, blue tank engine with six small wheels, a short stumpy funnel, a short stumpy boiler and a short stumpy dome. 70 years to this day, the Reverend Wilbert Awdry published the first of his Railway Series which told the stories and adventures of the Island of Sodor; a place where the railway is still the perfect way to travel. But the greatest thing about The Railway Series and its resulting ‘Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends’ television show isn’t that it has survived for so long; it’s that it is still some of the greatest children’s literature ever written.

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The origins of Thomas the Tank Engine are just as compelling as the stories themselves. Awdry was faced with having to entertain his young son, Christopher, who was taken ill and so, being the doting father he was, Awdry recited a poem about engines getting stuck in tunnels due to rain for his sick boy. This then evolved into longer stories about different engines. After being persuaded, Awdry finally published ‘The Three Railway Engines’ in 1945; a book of his first four short stories, citing influence from watching steam locomotives hard at work and the stories he told his son. Thus, Henry, Edward and Gordon were cemented in the creation of the tip of the iceberg. What’s good about this is that they all had their own personalities. Gordon was the fastest engine on the island and so he pulled the express. This made him proud but boastful and oftentimes, he could not see his faults because of that. Henry was more bashful but learned to overcome his dread. Edward was sometimes over-looked because he was older but when he does get the opportunity, he is shown as being vastly wiser and he works incredibly hard. These are evident in real life steam engines; each have a different personality and each has a learning curve to adapt to. Add in the values and traditions of friendship and hard work and learning from their own mistakes that you find in all the best children’s books and colourful and detailed pictures for each page and Awdry was on to a winner. But what about Thomas himself?

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Like A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Thomas was originally a toy – owned by Christopher -and was given his own book the year following the release of the ‘Three Railway Engines.’ It mainly focused on the little blue engine and his short adventures that included not trusting trucks, being too impatient with a train full of passengers and inadvertently leaving them behind and remembering never to get on Gordon’s bad side. Sir Topham Hatt, – The Fat Controller, known as the Fat Director at that time – puts Thomas in his place by making him shunt trucks in the goods yard but when a new engine – James – has a serious accident, Thomas’s mentality changes and realises that he has the opportunity to put things right earning him is own branch line as well as two smart new coaches called Annie and Clarabel in the process. And thus, the next book focuses on James; which begat stories of Thomas on his own branchline; which begat the introduction of Percy; which begat the turmoil faced by Henry; followed by Toby the Tram engine; followed by Gordon; Edward and so on. The last book written by Reverend Awdry was published in 1972 and now The Railway Series had expanded to include mountain engines; tramways; welsh inspired narrow gauge engines; famous visitors and miniature engines. The books also had an amazing vocabulary, sticking with a more mature and in depth style that remained informative but also readable to a six year old without it being daunting. Yes, there were big words but being a curious child, you learn what it means and then that word is forever emblazoned in your head ready for next time. I wouldn’t expect books nowadays to use the words ‘Resource and Sagacity’ but the nature of how Gordon and James describe Oliver paints the picture perfectly without having to go into too much detail.

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Another great thing about the stories is that they gave an insight to the troubles faced by railways at the time so you’ve got visiting diesels claiming ownership of the railway because the mainland is going through dieselisation (where steam engines were being phased out); engines running away from being turned into scrap; and all manner of breakdowns and accidents. But it also showed us how great and diverse the railways could be. With engines becoming famous on the mainland, overcoming the road network and the devious double-decker buses; and people understanding the value of steam locomotion. As the stories went on, the characters developed more and built on their personalities more and more until each character had their own fundamental trait. Percy and Thomas would often play tricks on each other but still remain good friends; Edward had a methodical outlook; James was always adamant that Gordon was inferior yet Toby proving otherwise; and Henry had overcome his fear of the Flying Kipper (I swear, that train of fish wagons was cursed). I absolutely loved the illustrations, particularly the more recent ones. They showed some incredible details that added depth and certainly more scale than previously. The illustration of Henry below is one of my personal favourites.

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The books stayed popular and in 1984, with Britt Allcroft at the wheel, ‘Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends’ made it to the small screen. Narrated by Ringo Starr, the TV adaptation followed the stories of the books. Starr narrated with air of dryness to his delivery, giving the engines a somewhat sarcastic tone and quick wit. This was matched by series three when Michael Angelis took over narration, adding a bit more humour that didn’t stop at the slapstick. He also added in the personalities of the engines. I still find the retorts to be sharp and witty. The production was good too, favouring an actual model layout with all the engines reproduced in bright colours with moving eyes over animation. As the series went on, stories were being made especially for the show. This came with a bit of controversy from Awdry and retaliation from Allcroft. Awdry wanted a more realistic portrayal that was represented in his books but Allcroft had creative freedom and from a children’s TV producer perspective, creating something that appealed to the audience would be more captivating.

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As the TV show went on, original stories not related to the books where being made but they still held some regard to how a steam railway ran and operated. But after the turn of the millennium when production could be made cheaper with the inclusion of CGI, I felt that some of the stories lost their touch. It may sound ridiculous but for a children’s TV show, it became too childish. Kat and I firmly believe that shows such as the Herbs, the Clangers, Camberwick Green, Bagpuss and Thomas retained their charm by talking to its audience regardless of their age just like the books did. It might not be complex but you can understand if you were three or ten or fifteen years old. Thomas has now fallen into a strange rut where it has become alienated from that audience it used to have. It still focuses on railways and morals and life lessons but there’s now more engines than ever, the narration is dumbed down and that shine has been lost. Maybe I’ve just grown up and the zeitgeist has taken its seat but I’m not ending on a bad note, I refuse to!

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The books, however, continued to be made through the 80’s and 90’s right up to the very last one being published in 2007. These were written by Christopher Awdry. Yep, he had gone from being told the stories to writing his own again citing inspiration from actual stories from railways. Christopher published a further sixteen books bringing the grand total to forty-two and laying the series to rest. But even though I’m twenty-three, there’s still a part of me that firmly believes that Thomas, Gordon, Henry, Percy, James and company are still hard at work keeping troublesome trucks in check and taking holiday makers to the sandy beaches on the entirely fictional Island of Sodor. This is what all good children’s books should do; they should make you believe that no matter what, there is a world out there where anything is possible. And I say that because re-reading my Railway Series Collection every now and then, I don’t feel nostalgic or the like, I feel like it is still happening. Thomas the Tank Engine has now reached millions of people the via books, TV show, toys, Hornby models, clothing, video games, feature films – that starred Alec Baldwin and Peter Fonda, no doubt – real life, full scale versions; absolutely anything imaginable. Negativity aside, I am still glad that Thomas and his friends still continue their adventures to this day, 70 years on. 70 years of pulling coaches, shunting trucks, crashes, breakdowns, elephant encounters, getting stuck in snow, struggling up Gordon’s hill, teasing and playing tricks, making friends but fundamentally, working hard and being a really useful engine. It’s clear that this train is still up to steam and isn’t stopping anytime soon.

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Jimmi

Mallard’s Festival of Speed – Grantham, Lincolnshire, United Kingdom

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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Jimmi

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