I was late home on Friday night. My train stopped and the announcement on the tannoy let me and my fellow passengers know that it was because there were crowds of people close to the tracks, all trying to get a glimpse at the infamous Flying Scotsman. The rest of the passengers mumbled their complaints (including the lady sat next to me who immediately googled ‘Flying Scotsman’, found a film about cycling from 2006, eventually realised it was a steam locomotive, rolled her eyes, and joined everyone else), but I felt quietly proud.
As our train crawled its way towards Bristol I could see crowds of people standing in fields, pointing at our rather boring train and waving, all in expectation of a more interesting spectacle. The whole thing had a sense of community about it, and I was more than a little surprised. Like most people today, I tend to think of rail travel as something that’s a bit expensive, uncomfortable and outdated. But here whole families were standing, smiling and waving – a reminder that the romanticism of railways still has its last few hurrahs every now and again, especially if accompanied by clouds of smoke and those crowd pleasing ‘Woo-Woo’s.
For a moment, I got a glimpse into what it must have felt like to be a train passenger in Brunel’s day. The glamourous and plush carriages sporting private compartments, horsehair fabric seats, and, of course, the essential netting overhead to hang your hat or bonnet, were the envy of bystanders marvelling at the majesty of a brand-new technology.
Brunel didn’t build the Flying Scotsman, but he did help set the ideals of what rail travel was and could be. When travelling on the newly opened Liverpool and Manchester Railway, Brunel attempted to draw a perfect circle (main image) and then wrote in his diary in 1831;
“The time is not far off when we shall be able to take our coffee and write while going noiselessly and smoothly at 45 miles per hour - let me try”
And try he did, setting about to create a fast, smooth, railway between Bristol and London. He decided to take a circuitous route for the Great Western Railway, mockingly nicknamed ‘Great Way Round’ by contemporaries, not only to save the GWR Co. money, (fewer tunnels, bridges, and steep gradients), but also to provide a service unrivalled by any other railway in Britain. Even his fiercest rival, George Stephenson, when asked about the GWR by Parliament, claimed that he could imagine a better railway but could not name one.
It must have been exciting and terrifying to have seen these iron beasts racing at 30 mph across the landscape, on rails which didn’t exist the previous year, pulling behind them the trademark brown and cream carriages which contained the celebrities of the day in the utmost of comfort (though Queen Victoria wasn’t a fan – still too bumpy).
Even Brunel’s father, a famous engineer in his own right, marvelled at his son’s achievement. In a letter dated September 1842 and recently donated toss Great Britain Trust, Marc Brunel’s views are recorded;
“he spoke of remembering the time when he used to post
to town in two days from Portsmouth sleeping the first
night at Liphook; and told me that he had travelled
60 miles, and even more, in one hour on the Great Western
Railway. He is proud of his son’s genius displayed in
that great work, and surely we may expect to see
yet greater ones performed by him!”
It may be a step too far to say the Flying Scotsman is a direct descendent of Brunel and his contemporaries’ work, but nonetheless it’s impossible not to attribute some of the romanticism of railways to this Victorian engineer’s vision. It’s truly impressive. Even if it means your train home stops every ten minutes.
Author: Luke Holmes, Senior Interpretation Officer