Did you know that the Hogwarts Express, constructed in the late 1950s, came equipped with a long slot to take your iPad, iPhone or Kindle? Nor did I until I embarked on the the Mayflower steam excursion from London to Plymouth last weekend. This railway enthusiasts’ outing was one of a series organised by the Railway Touring Company, taking advantage of the fact that Britain is the only country in the world to permit vintage trains to run on mainline routes.
It was an added bonus to find ourselves seated in the very rolling stock that made up the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies. Only the locomotives were different. The carriages, standard 1950s nationalised British Railways output, were full of mahogany detailing, including curvily crafted window ledges. Imagine my delight in finding a channel¹ along the windowsill just big enough to securely hold my Kindle, iPad and iPhone. I was, of course, fully equipped for this 15-hour marathon.
This detail, which is entirely lacking on modern rolling stock, was a ridge before its time. Maybe it is a bit of Potter magic, but useful nonetheless. Walking down our plush dining car I discovered two iPads fixed securely into the convenient notch. Both irredeemable train fanatics were hunched down over an app to record the speed of the express (not so fast, although we did better 70 mph on one occasion).
I was accompanied on the excursion by our Washington correspondent, Ralf Meier (see his YouTube train videos here), who is a train buff to end all train buffs. He travels the world and never fails to explore a track, film a locomotive or sniff a hint of steam. It was his idea to embark on the Mayflower and he flew over specially for the experience.
We set off at cock crow from London Euston, hauled by the A4 Class Pacific (see, here we go again with Apple allusions) “Dominion of New Zealand”, all done up in the original London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) blue. She was built at Doncaster in 1937 and, if you are a real train nerd, you will already know she’s a 4-6-2. This is a sister locomotive to the record-breaking “Mallard” and designed by Sir Nigel Gresley. She was originally called the “Bittern”, in line with Gresley’s love of ornithology.
DoNZ was far too grand a beast to be piloting us on our early morning meanderings along the by-lines of north-west London. We’d been denied platform space at the usual station for the west, Paddington, and we slunk along near-disused freight tracks until we could join Brunel’s famous Great Western mainline for the 190-mile journey to Plymouth.
Once on the main line, facing a full English breakfast of porridge, kippers, bacon, sausage, fried eggs, hash browns and baked beans, we sauntered down to Taunton with several stops for embarking passengers, general fussing around and taking on water. The mainline water troughs, which used to replenish long-distance locomotives, have long since disappeared. We had to rely on pulling alongside a couple of fire tenders and taking water ignominiously from a fire hose. DoNZ had two tenders but even they do not seem to hold enough water for a non-stop run to Plymouth.
At Taunton we acquired a second engine, the “Nunney Castle” because the gradients between Taunton and Plymouth are far too steep for the poor old A4 unassisted. This was another big occasion for the passengers, who dragged out lots of expensive camera gear, tripods and movie cameras. Not a chuff, not a puff of steam was to be missed.
Nor, it seems, was a bite of food to be missed. Our massive breakfast was followed by a “light lunch” and then by a not-so-light dinner with a sip or two of Merlot. The iPhone, iPad and Kindle were jiggling along comfortably in their customised holders, the flowers in the pot were real and all was well with the world.
We reflected, somewhat unkindly, on our three-hour stopover in Plymouth. Here it was that Francis Drake had a quiet game of bowls before going out to trounce the Spanish Armada in 1588. A few years later, in 1620, the Plymouth Brethren set out for the New World.
Fifteen hours after leaving Euston Station we steamed into Paddington just after ten. Fortunately, a convenient platform had been discovered and we avoided rerouting to some other waystation. We happy band of nutters were all set for a repeat excursion.
¹ I know, I know. Before I get demolished by the train fanbois, this channel on the windowsill is a drain for condensation. But let us not let facts get in the way of a good story.