The Anonymous Widower

The Thunder of Three-Thousand Three-Hundred Horses

I think it was Paul Theroux, who wrote about waking up to the sound of the railroad.  At home in Cockfosters, I used to hear the sound of the steam trains travelling north towards the North and Scotland, as they ran through Oakleigh Park and New Barnet.  From about eight I used to cycle to the line to collect train numbers. It was towards  the end of the steam age, and I can still see and smell, Gresley‘s magnificent A4 Pacifics as they roared through Hadley Wood, where we used to put pennies on the line, so they were squashed flat. I also broke a front tooth at Oakleigh Park,  when I fell off my bike. It has been capped twice, so hopefully it is a good omen for the rest of my body.

Everything started to change in 1955, when an interloper arrived on the scene, in the shape of English Electric’s Deltic prototype, which I could hear as it raced north once a day. It was called Deltic after its lightweight and very compact Napier diesel engine of the same name. At the time, the 3,300 bhp made them the most powerful railway engine in the world. The diesel engines had originally been developed during the Second World War to power ships like MTBs and mine hunters, but found their fame in the powerful railway engine. Some of the engines even ended up in fast patrol boats in the US Navy.

The Deltic signalled the end of an era and by the time I went to Liverpool University in 1965, all the formidable A4s had gone to be replaced by the production Deltics or Class 55s, as they are more correctly called.

When I worked for ICI at Welwyn Garden City in the very early seventies, I travelled north a few times to the manufacturing site at Wilton on Teesside behind the Class 55s.

One of the most memorable train journeys I have ever experienced, if not the most memorable, was on one of the return trips from Teesside.

I had finished my work at Wilton that day, when I was rung by the Transport Office, who asked if I ‘d mind being taken to Darlington early to catch the London train, as they had a VIP, who wanted to go early for the train to Bristol.  I said yes, as that would mean a car journey in comfort instead of the local train from Eaglescliffe, through the hell-like landscape of the steelworks.

In the end, I arrived at Darlington with about an hour to wait for my train.  After looking at Locomotion No. 1, which in those days was displayed on the platform, I retired to the bar for a pint. Just as I was settling in a chair, an announcement said that the train now arriving was the delayed Talisman for London. I asked if I should board the train and if I did would I get to London early.  I got a double yes, left my pint and got on the train, which at that time was running forty-five minutes late, as a generator slung under a carriage had disintegrated and they’d had to stop to leave the offending carriage behind.

There is an interesting aside here about Locomotion No. 1, in that Hunter Davies saw the engine on the station and then went into W. H. Smith on the station to buy a book for the journey back to London. As he had just seen the engine, he looked for a biography of its creator, George Stephenson , only to be told that no-one had written one. Later he supposedly checked this with his agent, who then suggested that he write the book. So that is why an author of popular biographies of the such of the Beatles and Wayne Rooney, ended up writing the first biography of the only engineer, known to nearly everybody.

At the time of my return trip, the fastest Darlington to Kings Cross trains took three hours, whereas today a time of two hours forty-five minutes is about average, with the fastest ones taking about two hours twenty-five minutes. I should say that Darlington is 232 miles from Kings Cross.

My train that day had a clear run, as it had delayed everything behind it, so the driver was able to open up those Napier Deltic engines to try to regain the lost forty-five minutes.

And regain them he did!

Despite stops at probably York, Doncaster, Newark and Peterborough, he was able to keep the speed to such a level, that by the time we stopped in London, he was on time. So that means he probably took two hours fifteen minutes, which worked out as an average speed of just over 103 miles per hour including stops.  Not bad for a train with a maximum speed of just 100. I actually timed the train at about this speed, just north of Peterborough.

Train journeys are not like that today. I remember eating dinner on the train and it was possibly the worst-served meal, I’ve ever had on a train, as the waiter had difficulty walking up and down, as the train bumped and lurched.  The guard also kept passing through, announcing the latest estimate of our arrival time in Kings Cross.

I sometimes think that time has enlivened this story, but it was a wonderful thrill to find out what a properly-driven Deltic could do. Eurostars, TGVs and the other modern fast trains don’t give that same feeling! Certainly my trip to Middlesbrough behind a Class 91 for part of the way will not be so exciting.

July 22, 2010 - Posted by | Transport, World | ,

8 Comments »

  1. I had aunts in that area, and when we lived in Kent and our girls were little we often used to go for walks around Hadley – I remember taking them to see the little moorhen chicks.

    On the subject of steam trains, I was brought up about a five minute drive from Rainhill.

    Comment by Liz P | July 22, 2010 | Reply

  2. Hadley Wood was notorious in those days. Someone I knew got paid a fiver to take all his clothes off. But we just passed the stories of danger between ourselves and nothing serious ever happened. Although one of my mates got shot by an oick with an air pistol.

    Comment by AnonW | July 22, 2010 | Reply

  3. […] they picked up speed through New Barnet, my affections are generally towards that route. One of my most memorable railway journeys happened on that […]

    Pingback by By God’s Wonderful Railway to Bristol « The Anonymous Widower | April 17, 2011 | Reply

  4. […] scrapping these wonderful locootives, they should have been properly stored. After all one my most memorable train trips was behind a […]

    Pingback by What A Way To Run a Railway « The Anonymous Widower | April 25, 2011 | Reply

  5. […] More of these engines should be displayed at stations, just like Locomotion No.1 used to be at Darlington. The story of that is described here. […]

    Pingback by Birmingham Moor Street Station « The Anonymous Widower | November 16, 2011 | Reply

  6. […] In those days staff travelled up to the major plant at Wilton on Teesside quite regularly. One of my tales is detailed here. […]

    Pingback by Engineers Will Be Engineers « The Anonymous Widower | January 2, 2014 | Reply

  7. […] enjoy breakfast on Ipswich to London in the past, when they had a dining car. In some ways the most memorable was a return from Teeside to London behind a Class 55, where the driver showed what a Deltic could […]

    Pingback by The Best Meal I’ve Ever Had On A Scheduled Train « The Anonymous Widower | October 18, 2014 | Reply

  8. […] a name; the Class 55 locomotive or Deltic. For those of my generation, Deltics are often iconic. In The Thunder of Three-Thousand Three-Hundred Horses, I describe a memorable trip behind a […]

    Pingback by A First Ride In One Of LNER’s New Azumas « The Anonymous Widower | May 16, 2019 | Reply


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