Friday, 18 October 2013

London's goodbye gift to me

A mythic life is only realized late. As we get older, and if the circumstances are just so, the interconnectedness of the universe becomes apparent. Perhaps it is simply that we forget the inconsequential, but once a mythic life is realized, then the future events that reflect that life proliferate as if all is part of a matrix. Life then becomes magical. Of course, when I was thirteen, events just happened and were connected by nothing at all.

It was 1963, and my family was about to move away from London to a village in Essex. Most of my life had been focused on Wood Green in north London -- perhaps about once a week my parents took me to places not that far away from Wood Green, and there were Christmastime trips to the West End and summer holidays at the seaside. It was not until I was old enough to travel on my own that my horizons expanded. One of my favorite places was Hertford and I often went fishing nearby. So a move to Essex was drastic --even though the distance to my new home was only about thirty five miles, it might just as well have been the other side of the world to me at that time.

I never took to trainspotting like some of my friends. I tried it, but it bored me. Trains were OK, but there were only two of them that captured my attention: the Flying Scotsman and the Mallard.  I lived very close to Wood Green (Alexandra Park) railway station, and like many local kids, I grew up enjoying walking across the footbridge to the station and waiting for those two express trains to pass. They never stopped at Wood Green -- but why would they? Their passengers had much greater horizons, places that I would never see. The bridge was lined by a wooden fence with boards set very close, but you could peer between the boards to the tracks below. We used to position ourselves above the rails that carried those trains, and as they passed, we were enveloped in their steam. The greatest excitement was achieved when the Mallard passed by. It was the world's fastest steam locomotive, and its speed record has never been broken. Originally painted blue, and now restored to that colour, I knew it as Brunswick Green but now I can find only one photograph of it from those days. It was streamlined and very Art Deco and it seemed to scream as it passed by.

It was late April or early May of 1963 when I decided to visit Hertford for the last time, although I always went there with friends, that day, I decided to go alone. I was waiting on the platform for the train. The steam trains were starting to give way to the new diesels, but the latter were rather unreliable and very prone to breakdown. So it did not surprise me much when the train was late. When the train finally pulled into the station, my jaw dropped and my heart started pounding -- It was the Mallard! She had recently been retired but on that day, she was being moved -- literally under her own steam. There was no other engine available so she was making an unofficial last run.

I don't remember what I did when I reached Hertford, but I will never forget the journey. I don't know if it was just because the scheduled train was running late or whether the engineer had thought: "Let's see what this baby can do!", but I soon found myself travelling faster than I had ever traveled before -- well over 100 mph (160+ kmh).

Searching for a video that  best expresses (no pun intended) that journey, I had to settle for this simulation:

The scenes that show the countryside passing from within the carriage are spot on, as are the sounds. That is what the train ride was like. She made a run or two much later, during her retirement, and the following video shows her, sedately at first, then faster -- but still slower than what I remember from that wonderful day:


  1. thanks for sharing your memories john and to think as im typing this now im just 5 min away from woodgreen,its a small world.i might even take the dog for a walk to allexandra palace tomorrow.

  2. Thank you, Kyri, and have fun at "Ally Pally"!