Waiting For The Flying Scotsman
Like lots of little boys, I loved my model railway set. It was an oval piece of track, planted onto a hastily painted green, 6’x3’ piece of chipboard. It didn’t have any outstanding features – hills, buildings, level crossings – and my rolling stock consisted of one Inter-City train with half falling off transfers. The whole thing was a hand-me-down from my older sister, who had bought it all herself when she was about eight, but outgrew it when she started broaching the complicated world of make-up, boys and training bras. However, her possessive nature meant I had had to buy the set from her in a complicated PFI-type of deal, where she received a certain amount of my pocket money each week, until I had acquired over 50% of the track and was hence allowed to keep it in my room.
Long after I had outgrown the set myself and sent it to the great toy box in the sky, my dad’s dad, Grandad Billy, gave me a beautiful ornamental scale model of the Flying Scotsman. He departed for his own special place in the sky not long afterward and despite being a typical 18 year old lad from Burnley, whose weekends were a lager fuelled blur of failing to pull girls, fights and football away days, the model took pride of place on my bedroom bookshelf, purely for the sentimental association to the man who gave it to me.
When the 2015/16 third round FA Cup draw pulled us out of the pot to play away at Middlesbrough, 5 places above us at the top of The Championship table, my dad checked that I was up for going with him as usual. FA Cup Third Round Day is a special occasion for us both, but even more so for him. When I broke it to him that I didn’t fancy the trip, I felt I had to put a case together: we had been terrible away from home all season, we were playing them twice this season anyway, we’d been a few times already and it isn’t a great away day out, the A59 was closed due to flooding and, the killer; I’d given up drinking for a New Year health kick and would need to be drunk to sit through an away match against a team who hadn’t conceded a goal at home to Championship opposition since September when we hadn’t scored on our travels for what felt like an eternity. He understood my logic and said it was novel to see it in such abundance in a Clarets fan.
That logic disappeared on the day of the game when we instead chose to spend 2 hours stood in the near-freezing cold and rain, peering up at a skewed railway bridge on the outskirts of Ramsbottom, to see the Flying Scotsman hurtle down the East Lancashire Railway. The original plan was to go and watch some non-league football, in particular at Nelson; a ground I hadn’t visited since winning the Year 7 Burnley and Pendle School’s President Shield there in 2001, with Dad looking on. The pitch, like most within 20 miles, was waterlogged and the game was postponed. I asked what his alternative plans were and he said he was going to see the Flying Scotsman in Ramsbottom so, feeling cheated of a now all too rare afternoon alone with my dad, I asked to tag along. “Absolutely”, was his texted reply.
We got to Ramsbottom a little later than planned for the 1414hrs timetabled viewing as it passed through the station. At five past two, my dad, my in-laws’ two Labradors (Nelson and Ralph) that I was looking after and myself parked up on the edge of town, at the first viewing point we could think of.
“We could watch it come past here in ten minutes and then walk down into town and see it again on its way back up the line, hopefully with a better view. What do you reckon?” my dad asked. Sounded good to me as it meant I could also let the dogs stretch their legs with the walk down to the station.
It was a more than decent view anyway. A partially clear line of sight down the line, which was elevated about 20 feet above us, hampered by tree branches before the train (it would be a train and not just a locomotive, as it was pulling carriages, somethine I learned during the wait) would explode into complete and unobstructed glory on the bridge across the road in front of us. We had the angle and we had the lighting, so I was already counting the Instagram likes.
The time arrived.
“Here we go, son, how’s that for timing?” he said, as we heard the whistles and saw the steam over the bare trees having been stood waiting barely two minutes. “Oh, bloody hell, it’s not even the Scotsman!” my dad laughed. It was the bog standard, run of the mill, East Lancs steam train completing its usual shuttle between Bury and Rawtenstall. Oh well, let’s view it as the warm up act to the main event.
Ten more minutes went by. Then another ten. Then another ten until there was still no sign. “Something must have gone wrong,” my dad thought aloud, as he checked his timetable to make sure it wasn’t his mistake. With utter serendipity, we heard the sound of an approaching steam train and looked back up at the bridge. And there it was in big, gold, freshly painted letters; THE GOLDEN ARROW.
“’The F-ing What’ did that say?!” He was incredulous. “What the hell was that? That wasn’t the Scotsman either!”
I mean, neither of us are a trainspotter’s cousin, so little did we know that his was a historic locomotive in itself; an Anglo-French enterprise that took first class only passengers from London to Dover, to board a ferry to Calais where they could join the Flèche d’Or to take them to Paris. A1920’s equivalent of the Channel tunnel.
I found all this out whilst on my phone, whilst we stood there at the traffic lights at the bottom of Stubbins Street, almost underneath a railway bridge, outside the SCA Paper Mill. We also found out that there had been some sort of problem with the engine and there was an hour delay. By this time though, it was almost quarter to three, so it should be about another half an hour. We decided to go for a brew, in lieu of there being no pub anywhere nearby.
Following a couple of brews, we decided against heading into town, as pictures on twitter showed crowds, six deep, straining to get a fleeting view of this most famous train, and went back to our own private spec.
We resumed our vigil; dad keeping abreast of the football scores on his Apple watch (Burnley were 1-nil down already), I desperately refreshing the Flying Scotsman hashtag for a useful update on twitter, and Nelson and Ralph starting various degrees of bother with the many passing dogs and their owners. Springer spaniels and basset hounds are apparently sound but cocky little terriers and collies are definitely not.
Somehow time crept on to 3.45, when Burnley equalised on the stroke of half time, massively against the run of play. It was hardly a ringing endorsement for the organisation of the East Lancashire Railway company that Burnley, of all teams, could manage to score an away goal at Middlesbrough, of all places, before they could manage to get a £10m steam locomotive to travel just 12 miles in order to satisfy thousands of people.
By now it was raining and rapidly going dark. We had been stood in this same spot for coming up to two hours. My dad remarked that there was no way he could be a trainspotter. I joked that if he were, he at least would have prepared a thermos and some sandwiches.
I noticed that people who passed up and down this road were now becoming familiar: the young lad in the blue Corsa with a red racing stripe; the friendly Manc bloke with the two spaniels that Nelson and Ralph didn’t mind; the young family with the three year old girl in wellington boots, jumping up and down in every possible puddle; and the young boy and his dad, who had been out on a bike ride and returned, covered in mud and happiness, at four o’clock.
“There’s nothing online still so I say we give it ten more minutes then sack it off”, suggested Dad. But I was feeling invested, I was in it for the long haul now. What is another hour when you have already waited two? But the light was getting shorter, the floor ever colder underneath our feet and the dogs were clearing their coats of the cold rain with increasing frequency. Nelson was looking at me with most definite sadness in his eyes.
At twenty-five past, we knocked it on the head and headed back to the car, bemoaning whatever had gone on and questioning what was the point of the East Lancs Railway having a twitter account if they couldn’t use it properly? Dad said he would come back tomorrow but I told him I couldn’t make it, as we sat down in the car and welcomed the warmth.
Literally - and I swear this is completely true – as I turned the key in the ignition, I heard what sounded like a train whistle. “I think that was it,” I said, as I jumped out of my car and ran, actually ran (what had I become?) back to the end of the street, just in time to see, kind of but not really, the Flying Scotsman. 200 yards away, for a fleeting split second it was there on the bridge we had been stood under for two and a half hours. It’s wartime blackout paint doing a great job of shrouding it into the evening winter sky.
We were robbed, we’d tried our best but sometimes that just isn’t enough. Some things just aren’t meant to be. As we pulled onto the M66, I said to Dad that I would have preferred not to see it at all. What had just happened felt like conceding a goal in the 89th minute to lose 1-nil. If we hadn’t seen it at all, we could have lived in disgruntled ignorance of how close we had been.
Heading for Burnley on the M66, you can either pull off onto the Haslingden bypass or carry on straight into Rawtenstall and drive “over the tops”. Dad sagely pointed out that the train might still be in the station at Rawtenstall, which is parallel to the road, so we should go that way.
Lo and behold, there she was. Just coming to rest, amidst a dwindling swell of camera flashes and golf umbrellas. The traffic lights were on red so I stopped and wound down my window for a better view.
We could smell the coal and hear the engine winding down, panting like a tired horse after a hard fought victory race. It felt like the time I saw both Denman and Kauto Star on parade before their last Gold Cup shootout; but the Scotsman combined the former’s hardworking robustness and the latter’s character and charm into one magnificent spectacle. Suddenly it all made sense, why this 154 year old locomotive can draw a crowd of thousands upon thousands of people. There were families, couples, kids, grandkids and they had all still been waiting in the cold, wet, dark evening to see this train because it embodied everything that had been enjoyable about today.
It was our injury time equaliser to make it 1-1. We would come back the next day for the replay and see him properly.