Friday, 29 April 2016

You rang, Mallard?

I paid a flying visit to Edinburgh recently, to see some friends and the band Frightened Rabbit, although by the time I returned home, I felt partly like I had been on a tour in tribute to Sir Nigel Gresley. Sir Nigel is possibly most famous for being the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London and North Eastern Railway, and for the steam engines he designed.

Those of you who have read this blog before, something that strikes me as unlikely but remotely possible, will already be aware from my post Steam Work, that he was the designer of Mallard, the fastest steam engine in the world (which reached 126 mph (203 km/h) on 3 July 1938). Among other achievements, he had also designed the famous Flying Scotsman, which had only recently been renovated and undertaken a celebratory journey from Kings Cross to York. This train, as many will also be aware, was equally famous, being the first steam locomotive to have reached 100 miles per hour (160.9 km/h), which it did on 30 November 1934

When I arrived at Kings Cross, which I still find impressive for its successful meshing of modern and old, I discovered that only a few days before, a statue had been unveiled to Sir Nigel Gresley. I did not know it at the time, but there was a campaign running to reinstate a companion statue of a mallard duck, which had originally been planned to accompany Sir Nigel, to commemorate not only the engine of the same name, but his apparent fondness for feeding ducks at his home. I recalled Sir Nigel, from my trip to the National Rail Museum, and took a picture of the statue, thinking no more about it.

The next day, whilst admiring the fine waiting room at Edinburgh Waverley railway station, pictured above, I discovered a plaque commemorating the life and work of Sir Nigel, who had been born in Edinburgh 140 years before...

and on the train heading back down south, I noticed a large sign beside the track, commemorating the spot, at Stoke Summit on the East Coast Main Line, where in 1938 Mallard had set the world speed record for a steam locomotive. It was gone in a flash, but it felt like a sign, in every sense of the word. We can never know what impact we will leave on the world, but at that moment, it felt that Sir Nigel had definitely made his mark.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Bring me sunshine

On the seafront in Morecambe, Lancashire, caught midway through his famous dance, stands a glorious statue to one of the town's most famous sons, Eric Morecambe. Born John Eric Bartholomew (as recognised in the name of a pub in town), the genius of Eric Morecambe needs no explanation for British readers, although he may be less well known further afield. A comedian, best known for his double act with Ernie Wise, Morecambe was a well-loved television personality, and was a particularly great star in the sixties and seventies (Morecambe and Wise's 1977 Christmas show on the BBC is reputed to have had an audience of around 28,385,000).

I had known about the statute in Morecambe's home town for some time, and had always wanted to go and see it but, despite passing reasonably close to it many times, on my way to the Lake District (which you can see in the background of the photograph, above), I had never gone out of my way to pay it a visit. Morecambe, the town, has a bit of a reputation for, to be generous, its faded glory, so I was pleasantly surprised, when I did finally make the effort to go to find it had a pleasant promenade along the seafront, and an air of quiet business. A typical English seaside town, its days of being a thriving tourist destination are very clearly past, but there was nevertheless a sense of minor optimism about it, of an effort having been made to attract the visitor, and it was nowhere near as dispiriting as I had imagined.

The statue of Eric Morecambe had, a little time before, been removed after a vandal had apparently tried cut it off at the leg, but it had been restored, and was just as joyous - even more so, in fact - as I had anticipated. For a man who brought a great deal of joy to many millions of people, it was heartwarming to see the genuine affection in people's faces, as they politely waited their turn to have their photographs taken with his statue. Most, like me, posed for their pictures with one leg in the air, their arms waving, in tribute to the statute's subject, and all of them, from what I could tell, were smiling; many, myself included, were properly grinning.

It says something about the warmth with which Eric Morecambe is remembered that even a statute of him (brilliantly rendered by sculptor Graham Ibbeson, including binoculars in honour of Morecambe's fondness for birdwatching) brightens up people's days. Even the thought of it, and its effect on those who had come to see it, cheers me again.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Feeling sheepish

The Lake District has a number of famous inhabitants. Depending on who you ask, they might mention Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the other Lake Poets,  Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome or Alfred Wainwright, author of the famous Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells. For other people, some of the most famous residents are there still, and will carry on doing so for many years; not the humans who call Lakeland their home, but the Herdwick sheep, 99% of whom are estimated to live in commercial flocks in the central and western dales of the Lake District.

Herdwicks are especially robust animals, and live solely on forage, but tend not to stray, which makes them especially suited to the hills of the Lake District. For those of us who do not farm, the Herdwick sheep are also very distinctive, with their brown wooly bodies and faces seemingly with a perpetual amicable smile, and many people, me included, find them endearingly charming. This pleasing visage is perhaps what prompted the Herdy Company in England to produce a range of Herdwick-inspired products which, with their stylised Herdwick face peeping out, can be found in shops all over the Lake District.

Seeing the Herdwick sheep, perhaps as much as the familiar outlines of the Lakeland Fells, is one of the ways that makes me feel that I have arrived in the Lakes; little brown clouds pottering across the slopes and fields beneath the peaks. It's at least partly because of that pleasing symbiosis that I have a Herdy mug on my desk, when I'm not out walking the Lakeland fells.