Built in 1923 for the London and North Eastern Railway, the Flying Scotsman has become synonymous with the golden age of steam on British railways.
This afternoon the famous locomotive toured Kent on a rare visit to the county, making the penultimate journey before rolling off the tracks for an overhaul before its centenary. Journalist Rhys Griffiths was one of those on board…
There’s definitely a swashbuckling feel to this highly anticipated event, times and locations have secretly slipped past lest our aging star’s arrival trigger a wave of eager fans, desperate to get a selfie with this glamorous icon.
And while she may be pushing 100, the moment she sweeps in your presence, it’s obvious that so many people are instantly struck by the slightest glimpse. They really don’t make them that way anymore.
Flying Scotsman, perhaps the most famous steam locomotive the world has ever known, remains at the box office to this day.
Today more than 450 rail enthusiasts paid up to £189 per person for the chance to board a Kent train tour carried by the locomotive on its first-ever visit to the county .
They left London Victoria this morning, and I would join the train at Canterbury West as it set off on a circular Coast Line tour through Dover and Folkestone, returning to the cathedral city via the historic railway engineering center of the Kent to Ashford.
Arriving in Canterbury on a rather standard southeastern train, we were greeted by packed platforms. ‘I had no idea Margate was so popular,’ one passenger joked as we got off the high-speed train bound for Thanet.
Crowds had flocked to Gare de l’Ouest just to catch a glimpse of the famous engine.
Before setting off on its round trip through east Kent, the locomotive needed to be hosed down in the sidings alongside the Good Shed restaurant and market.
All around, people of all ages jostled to admire the magnificent engine, take pictures and take selfies.
Due to problems prior to the departure from London, our departure time passes and the crowd and marshals surrounding them start to get a bit agitated.
The Flying Scotsman arrives at Canterbury West station
The off-season spring sun means those waiting on the platform opposite must be getting water while we wait, but I’m sure they prefer the sun to the cold and rain more usual at this period of the year.
Then, to everyone’s delight, our train returns to platform two, and everything is on board.
Crowds of passengers for the circular afternoon tea journey rush to the cars, eager to take their places on the vintage cars carried by Flying Scotsman today.
Among the guests for the day is a woman with a rather unique connection to the famous locomotive at the front.
“I was evacuated to York as a baby and as far as I know it was on the Flying Scotsman,” said Valerie White, 80.
Just a toddler when she was sent to North London during World War II, her family offered her a trip with the Scot all those years later.
“It’s a nostalgic moment,” she said. “It’s lovely, especially when you smell the smoke.”
Today’s train tour was organized by The Steam Dreams Rail Co., which began taking passengers on day trips in 1999 and now operates steam journeys to over 25 destinations across the UK.
Founder Marcus Robertson, who was on board for today’s trip, explained that unlike any other engine, Flying Scotsman attracts crowds desperate to see a piece of British rail history.
“The Flying Scotsman going anywhere is an incredible thing, as evidenced by the number of people coming out,” he said.
“But for Kent it’s particularly special because when the railways here were designed they weren’t big enough for the Flying Scotsman-sized locomotives.
“Network Rail now has this incredible gauging software that tells you which engines can pass through various places, bridges, platforms, which we didn’t think they probably could.
“So Flying Scotsman is now for the first time in its history allowed to descend into Kent.
“All steam engines are fantastic to look at and to listen to, but Flying Scotsman has an identity beyond that of fame, the first hundred mile per hour engine that somehow became an image of the Great -Brittany.”
From my seat at a linen-covered table, enjoying a delicious afternoon tea, this locomotive’s ability to win people’s hearts is evident in the number of people who came out to see it go by.
Train stations, bridges, fields, even a schoolyard – everywhere we go we see people waving, taking photos, marveling at this icon of the steam age.
Back in Canterbury, getting off the train, I feel privileged to have experienced this piece of railway history.