Special lady steams through

PUBLISHED: 18:09 14 September 2001 | UPDATED: 10:31 03 March 2010

THE Cathedral Express steamed through Suffolk to the delight of train enthusiasts around the county yesterday. Reporter James Fraser stood side by side with the rain-lashed trainspotters to discover the 'Old Girl's' attraction.

IT was certainly a day for anoraks.

But the fifty-plus train-spotters at Ipswich Railway Station, although suitably attired, were made of sterner stuff than to let the steady drizzle and the gathering gloom dampen their ardour.

Some had set up cameras on tripods, others, their eyes trained on the tracks ahead, held camcorders at the ready.

With baited breath, we were awaiting the arrival of a very special lady, a Merchant Navy class 462 steam loco, The Canadian Pacific. Years ago she was the grande dame of Southern Railways but now, her glory days behind her, she was masquerading in repertory as The Cathedral Express en route to London from Ely.

"I've been interested in trains for pretty much all my life," said 17-year-old Justin Stuart, so eagerly, he could have been waiting for a date. "It doesn't come here often."

Ipswich bricklayer Doug Barber, 59, admitted to being an "inveterate" train-spotter – and brought along his daughter Zara, 24, who also had it in her genes. So what hope for her seven-and-a-half month old son, given his family's railway heritage? "His great-granddad was a driver of steam, diesel and electric locomotives from this station," she said with a note of pride.

Trainspotting is no respecter of age, as four-year-old Louis Bjibjiu >>> proved lovingly reciting Thomas the Tank Engine as his inspiration – as well as Henry, Gordon, and Toby "his friends".

And then the moment arrived. A volley of camera flashes bounced off her sleek British Rail green flanks as she made her entrance like the prima donna she was.

With the grim-faced determination of paparazzi, her admirers jogged alongside as she came to a halt and jostled to form a phalanx of cameras.

At the end of platform 2b, steam licked around the frame below the boiler and sets of four and six wheels, the guiders and the drivers, and then with a deafening, high-pitched roar, she let off steam.

As we waited a few minutes for the locomotive to build up a big enough head of steam to move on again, amid the cauldron-like atmosphere of the cab, the flames bathed the faces of the driver and fireman with a red, infernal glow. But what was the magic, I wondered. Why go loco over a loco?

"I lived in a time when we actually ran them on the lines and it brings back memories of how things used to be, memories of the past and childhood." said Kesgrave roofer Dick Fawcett, 60. "There's a lot more life in them than just these square boxes with wheels – you've got a living thing. Each one is an individual with its individual ticks."

Built before the nationalisation of the railways in 1948 – and salvaged thanks to the foresight of a Welsh scrap merchant – the Cathedral Express had arrived a gleaming relic of the past, evoking a vision of stations billowing out steam, Trevor Howard, and Celia Johnson. I even began humming Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2.

As she pulled off with the carriages full of waving ("How I'd love to be on there," said Mr Fawcett) a "box on wheels" came in to disgorge its commuters.

I asked one if he would prefer instead to arrive in style behind the majesty of the 462.

Sadly not. "I'd want one that goes a bit a quicker. That would get me in in about 40 mins… and with a cheaper ticket," he said.

I sought solace with Mr Keith Wesley and his wife Linda, to whom I had been chatting before. They're anoraks zipped up against the cold hid nothing – I could tell they were excited. "It was very good," he said.

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