I well remember seeing my first A4 locomotive. It was at a level crossing at Rossington, a small mining area on the outskirts of Doncaster. The family was there over a weekend to see some friends and I had been forced to go out with my elder brother who was an avid trainspotter. I didn’t really want to go but as those who remained snug and warm were all talking adult stuff I decided to. It was a cold wet and windy Saturday morning in early December 1959 and as I trudged along with my brother, hands in pockets and probably moaning, I had no idea that what I was going to see that morning would come back time and time again as I proceeded through my life.
As I have written, it was cold and miserable and nothing against Rossington but it was hardly the centre of the Universe, so as far as I could see there was nothing exciting about standing around a level crossing, getting colder and wetter by the second. We had been waiting there for about half an hour and during that time we had been joined by some local trainspotting lads who had immediately become friendly with my brother and as if by some unseen kinship had become close friends all sharing a common interest. It was during this bonding period when each “spotter” showed their particular Ian Allan Shed book, where neatly underlined were the numbers of locomotives that had been “copped” and occasionally there was one underlined number that had a small “C” written alongside it. This I found out meant that the locomotive had actually been cabbed and so unfolded various stories and adventures on how each loco had been cabbed. Anyway I digress; as they were comparing books and adventures there was movement in the signal box with bells ringing, levers being pulled and wheels being turned. Seconds later the big double gates of the level crossing started to close and with this the lads dispersed to the best vantage points they could find. With eager anticipation in their eyes and with books open and pens poised they waited.
I meandered over to the wire fence adjacent to the closed gates and looked “up the line”. The line ran straight for probably about 100 years or so and then curved off to the left so all I could see was just empty track and nothing else. I did not hear the A4 to begin with but saw the distinctive sloping front of it first and then I gradually began to hear it. It was not travelling fast, probably I would guess 40+ mph but I was immediately struck by how “smooth” the locomotive looked and how it seemed to glide along the tracks and when it went passed, well I was just simply in awe; it was an amazing sight and one that has stayed with me ever since. The smooth streamline casing of the locomotive just made all the others that I had seen seem basic and agricultural. This one was and still is in my eyes the thoroughbred of all locomotives.
Throughout my early years working in a model shop and then later into my adult working life, Gresley’s A4’s have featured on a fairly regular basis. I had not been with Hornby, or to be more precise their subsidiary Hammant & Morgan, for more than a few months when the first Hornby A4 broke cover in 1979. Later on and as the years progressed I was able to add further variants to the Hornby range. In 1998 we were able to re-look at the tooling and enhance the model with extra detail which in turn led to further examples of the Class. In 2003 Hornby launched the incredible Live Steam system and what more suitable model could I have chosen to be the flagship model other than “Mallard”? Possibly “Flying Scotsman” but that was my second choice!!
At the start of the Millennium I was anxious that Hornby should produce a state of the art model of the A4 and in 2004 that is exactly what we did. The new model was fitted with a powerful new motor, pick-ups on all wheels, separately fitted detail and was received by the modelers to critical acclaim.
Hornby has enjoyed a very close relationship with the National Railway Museum for many years and it was during one of my visits to the museum some two years ago that I was advised of the possibility, as part of the Mallard 75 celebrations of bringing the remaining 6 A4s to the museum. I personally knew that it would be a task but being aware of the passion and determination that the museum has in abundance I knew it would happen, but how could Hornby help celebrate this momentous occasion?
The answer was simple, we just had to produce all six and bring them together as a collection. However, I didn’t just want to produce another 6 A4s, the collection had to be special. So how could we achieve this? Firstly it needed a name and to me bringing these last 6 thoroughbreds together in one place, arguably for the last time, was truly a Great Gathering! Having attained the title, and luckily the museum had the same thoughts, I set about thinking what else could be done. Extra detail and etched nameplates were a given and production had to be restricted so we settled on 500. Obviously each model would have a numbered certificate, however it was decided that those who purchased all 6 would receive the same number on each of the certificates, something that had never been done before. Finally, for those who bought all six, we created a beautiful glass fronted cabinet to display our “Great Gathering” in style. This unique approach was met when launched with keen enthusiasm and anticipation. This enthusiasm was fired up even more with the amazing coming together of the last A4 locomotives and the celebrations that followed at the museum on 3 July of this year. Surely this memorable occasion has to be the ultimate in celebrating the genius that was Sir Nigel Gresley and his masterpiece in design, the LNER A4 Class Pacific locomotive.
As you have read the A4s have been a regular occurrence in my life ever since my first encounter with one over 50 years ago on a dull and damp day in December. The Class and those members that make up the class are and were without doubt icons both in shape and mechanical excellence and although it is a very personal opinion I doubt if there is anything else of their type and function that can or will ever come close to surpassing them. And when the bell on “Dominion of Canada” was rung after its rededication on the 3 July it seemed to me that the bell was rung not only for the 6 at the museum but to the memory of Sir Nigel Gresley and the missing 29.
All six surviving A4 locos are currently on display for our Autumn Gathering where they will also star in our annual lighting competition. www.nrm.org.uk/mallard75