My View, Mel Hewitt: My day on the famous Mallard footplate

The Mallard, holder of the world speed record for steam locomotives 'Image � Paul David Drabble'
The Mallard, holder of the world speed record for steam locomotives 'Image � Paul David Drabble'

I began writing my column this week on an early morning train to Leeds.

My thoughts turned to railways and it made me think of Denison House on South Parade. This was home from 1818 to the promoter and supporter of the railways, Sir Edmund Becket-Denison – the man who I always think of as bringing the railway to Doncaster.

As a railway town since Victoria was on the throne we and our ancestors have reaped many rewards, including a heritage that many other towns of greater size and riches would envy.

We are still a ‘train town’ with the station a focal point linking us directly with London and Edinburgh as well as many points between. Now the Eurostar leaves from St Pancras it also links us to the capital of France and the heart of Europe. A wonderful thing to think of at any time, but 200 years after the Battle of Waterloo at which Napoleon was finally defeated a measure of progress and the power of peace.

The station is still a catalyst for business and a perfect complement to our airport. So, even though the glory days of the Mallard and The Flying Scotsman are gone, the legacy lives on.

I have always loved trains. As a child the excitement of waiting for the last of the steam trains as they sent up their plume of white steam as they passed the bottom of my aunt’s garden was palpable. The thrill and anticipation never dimmed.

In the 60s a trip to Leeds for a day out, where my dad worked as an artist, meant the excitement of a train with carriages that still had corridors and sliding doored compartments. These can still be seen in many British films of that era – a fine example of which is the Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’.

Trains are romantic. Railway stations are still places of parting and reunions and the starting point for new adventures or lives.

Artists and writers have captured the mystique of the train. From Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ to the inspired paintings of Terence Cuneo, the magic is there. Cuneo’s work can be viewed in our own museum and art gallery on Chequer Road.

My own special train ‘moment’ came in 1988 when 50 years after breaking the world speed record for steam, Mallard came back to Doncaster for refurbishment at The Plant. The engine that had stormed along at over 125 miles an hour at its peak on that July day in 1938 was in full steam.

As a very fortunate guest at her grand unveiling I was invited to take her along the track. As I stood in the dusty hot cab and pulled the lever back she slowly moved forward and I could feel the power. I really think she wanted to do her record breaking run again that day – and I’m sure she could have still done it.