The Clerk in the Country

Friday 31st March 2023

The Other Famous Steam Train

Since my last entry the Flying Scotsman has arrived at the National Railway Museum where for a few weeks visitors will be able to admire it at close quarters.  I took advantage of a similar opportunity when another famous engine celebrated a milestone anniversary in 2013.  While I needed an online check to clarify the Scotsman’s list of world records and “firsts”, I suspect that like me most people will know exactly what Mallard is famous for – the fastest steam locomotive in the world.

Since 1936 the world speed record for a steam locomotive of 124.5 mph had been held by a train in Nazi Germany, perhaps an added incentive for the attempt to be made on 3rd July 1938, when a four month old Mallard left King’s Cross station hauling six coaches plus a dynamometer car to measure speed and with a phial of aniseed oil in one of the bearings to act as a warning of overheating.  The speed of 126 mph recorded at Stoke Bank between Peterborough and Grantham was followed by the unmistakeable smell of aniseed, and a triumphant Mallard returned to London under tow.

For the 75th anniversary of the record-breaking run, Mallard and her surviving five sister engines were brought together in York.  Dwight D Eisenhower and Dominion of Canada crossed the Atlantic by ship, while Sir Nigel Gresley, Union of South Africa and Bittern made their way from tourist lines across the country, travelling at a sedate 75 mph in accordance with the speed limit for heritage trains, although Bittern had proved herself capable of 93 mph in trials that year.  Together in the great hall of the Railway Museum they made a thrilling sight and the chance to stand on Mallard’s footplate was not one to be missed, but it was not my most exciting encounter with the famous engine.

A quarter of a century earlier, before the expiry of her boiler licence, Mallard had marked the 50th anniversary of her record by recreating the run – and once again the route passed through my village.  Mindful of my childhood disappointment over the Flying Scotsman, I chose a different vantage point on an embankment with a long view of a curving stretch of track.  The anticipated difficulty of climbing the steep bank was overcome with the assistance of several true enthusiasts armed with tripods and long lenses, who hauled me up.  Right on time in the distance we spotted a plume of white smoke, surmounted by a helicopter.  Seconds later she was with us, whistling joyously and blowing her smoke in the other direction.  And then she was gone, flying northwards with the helicopter chugging along behind.  I only had time to press the shutter of my amateur camera once, but Mallard is a very photogenic locomotive.

Mallard on 3 July 1988 © F E Chambers