Sometimes engines don’t just define a time. They capture a sprit, an attitude and have the ability to be an integral part of the era from whence they came. So can be said about the A4. Sir Nigel Gresley’s design is one of the most iconic locomotives that graced railways. The curved front end that matched the Art-Deco era comes from a time of speed, style and success. While other engines had improvements and were rebuilt, the A4’s remained paramount and true to the idea of their basic design. To haul express trains, quickly to destinations, while their shape, power and image gave the PR departments of the day enough material to carve out flamboyant press releases that matched the imagination of enthusiast and the travelling public that saw or heard them at work. The echo or sound of the A4 chime whistle is unmistakeable and leaves a provocative impression.
Even after the post war period and nationalisation the design was altered little. Valences cleared and double chimneys were all that was pretty much done to the design that still thanks to its looks, power and reputation held the top roles and the most prestigious duties.
So, unlike many of his other designs Gresley’s A4s soon developed a cult status. Over the years the A4s have legions of followers, all who descended on Shildon to see the collection of the surviving A4s together. They travelled far and wide, from Japan, the state of California in the USA and from areas of Europe, such as Germany. All to Shildon, the birthplace of the railways and to a museum baring the name of the world’s first steam locomotive.
No doubt the forbearers of the A4 such as Stephenson and Hackworth would have approved of the celebration to mark the anniversary of Mallard reaching 125 mph. The Locomotion Museum and its staff marked the event with a brilliant display of engines, a north eastern friendly welcome and a venue that is world class. The public engine enjoyed the spectacle of seeing the engines grouped together, with 5 stood around the apron that marked the front of the Collection building, while the other gave brake van rides or platform access during the week.
The Night Photography sessions during the week also gave enthusiasts the chance to see the collection together, in a stunning line up, the like of which may not be repeated. While some enthusiasts during the day bemoaned a lack of such a sight for their minimal contribution, the fact remains that overwhelmingly the public and greater significant majority liked the engines on the apron, and seeing them in space spread out allowed them to walk freely and get up close and personal.
The week showed what can be achieved with an event that wants to bring information and experience to the public and enthusiasts alike. It also really marked a change in attitude, where railway events and line ups are now no longer the sole privilege of the watching enthusiast fraternity. Instead events will be for all, while elements cater for that demand and a price will be expected for it. I advocate that it is the best way forward to maintain and expend the hobby and interest for others to see and enjoy. No doubt that really is the testament of this week at Shildon, that it has given the interest and subject a positive image and reflection to many others. The A4s are superb examples of engineering and brilliance, of continued maintenance in nationalisation and into preservation. What better way to celebrate Mallards 125 run than not just celebrate that moment, but to enhance that to celebrate and enjoy the class of engines that were the A4s and the survivors seen at Shildon over this festival. To use them as just one example of what railways are capable of, to encourage others to find more. Should that happen, Stephenson, Hackworth, Raven, Gresley, Townsend and Cameron would unite in saying that this event would mark that occasion and idea perfectly. Thousands from all over the world agreed and they came to Shildon to see it for themselves. I was just one of over 125,000, but proud to be a part of it.