On the morning of 30 June 1938, “Fleet Street’s Finest” found themselves summoned to Kings Cross for a trial trip on the LNER’s latest luxury train. Confidently expecting the kind of “Beano” enjoyed in 1935 and 1937, with the launch of the “Jubilee” and the “Coronation”, one can only imagine their feelings, at being directed to a train of very old wooden bodied six-wheelers, of which far too many were still rumbling round on some suburban services and branch lines. The locomotive was no sleek streamliner, but a museum piece with a single huge driving wheel and a chimney resembling a muzzle-loading cannon. Even worse, there was no sign of liquid refreshments being served…
The “peg” for the event was the 50th anniversary of the “Races to Edinburgh” in 1888. the object was to publicise the new coaches built for the north and southbound “Flying Scotsman” service, by contrasting a train of 1888 with the latest products of Doncaster works. The old carriages were in fact original East Coast Joint Stock, cascaded to gradually more and more menial duties. The locomotive was of course Patrick Stirling’s “No1” temporarily withdrawn from York Railway Museum, and given an overhaul. As the old train trundled sedately out to Stevenage, passengers could read this pamphlet, and the thirsty journalists realized that hope was not lost, merely deferred.
Few on board were aware of the drama that had been enacted during the night. Eric Bannister, one of Sir Nigel Gresley’s technical assistants had been in charge of the arrangements and at 7pm was telephoned at home by Bernard Adkinson, shedmaster, that NO1 which had travelled down from Doncaster under her own steam, had run a hot driving wheel axle box. There were no fitters available so Bannister and Adkinson set to, dropping the driving wheels, to remetal and refit the axleboxes. At 6-30 am it was possible to send the loco out for a trial run. At 8-30am, all was reported in order. Bannister and Adkinson had invitations to go on the trip, and despite having been up all night, were not prepared to miss it. They travelled in the leading six-wheeler to Stevenage, so as to reach the loco quickly when the train stopped.
All was in order, and both young men were standing by the loco when Sir Nigel came over to them “Get on you two. We’ve got the signal.” They hesitated and said that they would rather go back to King’s Cross on the footplate of No1. To this Gresley replied, “You’ll miss a very good meal… but if you prefer to go on the 8-footer do… I wish I could come with you!” Not even Chief Mechanical Engineers could always do what they wanted to! On the return trip No.1 touched nearly 70mph, and Bannister later said it was a day he would always remember. I can sympathise. During the making of the BBC James Cameron documentary “Race to the North”, I travelled on the footplate of No.1, albeit much slower and propelled by a class 08 diesel. I also travelled on the offside running plate, to pitch a smoke cartridge down the blastpipe, while shed master Geoff Bird opened and closed the smokebox door and then followed me to hide behind what seemed a very low pitched boiler. The sight of that huge connecting rod flashing up and down just below my feet, as I clung to the handrail, is something I will never forget either! ’Elf and Safety? Never heard of it!