A spotter’s tale.

It’s Thursday 28th April 2011 and I’m sitting on the 05.51 departure from Chesham, staring up at Chesham’s disused signal box, it’s a grey morning but I have planned a rendezvous with a lady in red. The train doors rumble shut and we’re off, winding up the hillside to gain the Metropolitan main line at Chalfont and Latimer. I’m riding in a fine example of the Metropolitan Line A60/62 stock which has been in service since the early 1960s and, we are told, is becoming life expired, soon to be replaced by shiny new “S” stock.

The Chesham branch was operated as a shuttle and you used to have to change at Chalfont and Latimer for trains north to Amersham and Aylesbury or south to London but now the Chesham trains run all the way through to Aldgate. As we snake off of the Chesham branch I notice that the rails into the “shuttle” platform at Chalfont are now quite rusty through lack of use. Running south we pass under the M25, just north of Rickmansworth and before long we are approaching Harrow on the Hill with its evocative art deco style station buildings.

Our way continues south and before long we round the sudden curve into Finchley Road station, last stop before this “underground” train which has so far been steadfastly above the surface, dives underground. Not for me though, I alight and make my way up the stairs and out into a dull North London morning. I stride out to find the North London Line station at Finchley Road & Frognal, after close scrutiny of a map I’ve committed the route to memory but as I continue on my way I begin to doubt myself, but then I see  a small sign and arrow pointing along the street.

The entrance to Finchley Road & Frognal is quite unassuming and might almost be overlooked by someone in more of a hurry than me but I turn into the appropriate doorway and make my way down to the westbound platform to await a train headed for Richmond. The class 378 electric multiple unit duly arrives and I step on-board. So, this is the future of public transport in London, and it doesn’t have any seats, well, not many compared to the good old A60 stock on the Met Line and the class 313s that these new 378s have displaced; plenty of standing room though for the rush-hours. It’s strange; I will quite happily put-up with longitudinal seats on the tube stock but on surface trains it just feels wrong.

We wend our way through the suburbs of North London and before long arrive at Willesden Junction (High Level) where I de-train, as a Train Operating Company spokesperson might say, anyway, I get off at Willesden. First I consult my ‘phone, it is 06.51, and then I consult the scrap of paper in my breast pocket, “5Z71 due Willesden HL, 07.36”. Hmmm…, time for a bit of sightseeing then.

The high level North London Line tracks cross the West Coast Main Line (WCML) and disappear off towards what once was Great Western Railway territory, the Bakerloo and Watford/Euston DC lines (now rebranded “Overground”) rumble underneath. I wonder who came up with the name Overground; no doubt it took many consultants and not a little remuneration to coin that one! (TfL, if I’m wrong – please tell me.) In the days of steam this must have been a good place from which to watch trains, Willesden shed is nearby and there would no doubt have been a constant parade of interesting things to “cop”, I still find it interesting in its own way, there is a small cache of odd vehicles in a siding off the low level lines and a good view of what I suspect is called a traction maintenance facility in today’s parlance. There is a class 87 parked outside it but it’s end-on so it is difficult to make out which one.

I have arranged to meet my friend Kerry here; Kerry is travelling down from Berkhamsted, only 4 miles distant from Chesham but almost a world away (it seems to me) in railway terms. Chesham is on a one track stub of the Metropolitan Line but Berkhamsted sits astride the four track London to Glasgow line. I receive a text message saying that he is just passing Wembley on the DC lines, sorry, Overground… This might be tight, but I’m sure that he will make it in time to see 6201 go through. Ah, yes, 6201, that’s why we are here, a bit of 6201 spotting.

Today, steam locomotive 6201 Princess Elizabeth is going to haul a passenger train from London to York and back. Princess Elizabeth was built in 1933 by the London Midland and Scottish Railway and back in the day would have hauled trains out of Euston after having been prepared at Camden Shed. Today, steam loco depots are very few and far between, in fact there aren’t any on the national network but there are still a few places where steam loco preparation and stabling can be undertaken. For today’s journey the locomotive has been prepared at Old Oak Common, once preserve of the Great Western Railway, and is running out of Kings Cross, once of the London and North Eastern Railway. To get to Kings Cross from Old Oak Common 6201 must first haul the empty coaching stock along the Great Western main line and onto the North London Line, passing through Willesden Junction. After that the train turns onto the chord linking up to the East Coast Main Line just past Gospel Oak and then reverses down into Kings Cross. What a way to run a railway!

Meanwhile at Willesden, another train rumbles away below and a few moments later there is Kerry plodding up the stairs from the lower platforms. We exchange greetings and then discuss suitable vantage points at the station, which if you have ever visited Willesden Junction you will realise that there aren’t many but I have chosen Willesden from its interest point of view, not its view point, point of view. From the eastbound platform 5Z71 (the train reporting number of the movement from Old Oak Common to Kings Cross) will be approaching around a tight curve from behind the station buildings so we decide upon a vantage point from the west end of the westbound platform overlooking the WCML and the twin overbridges.

The platforms are busy with commuters all engaged in their morning pilgrimages while we stake our patch, cameras at the ready. Another class 378 starts away over the bridge towards Richmond and as it disappears out of view there is a wisp of steam approaching in the opposite direction. Cameras activated we watch as 6201 and its train is unceremoniously shoved by a West Coast Railways Class 37, up and over the WCML and into the eastbound platform. Then we realise that the train is actually stopping – we sprint for the other end of the platform, OK, we jog, reluctantly through the unenthusiastic commuters to the far end of the platform just in time to see the train starting away again. 6201 exudes much steam and smoke but doesn’t appear to be “working” at all, just enjoying the ride; her time will surely come later. The Class 37 is there on the rear of the train to pull the train down into Kings Cross once it gets up onto the ECML.

After seeing 5Z71 depart under the A404 road bridge we report to the eastbound platform to catch the next Overground train hot on the trail of 5Z71. The class 378 arrives and we board it for the short journey to Highbury & Islington where we change for the Victoria Line and the even shorter journey to Finsbury Park. Chaos nearly ensues at Finsbury Park, I’m sure that at one time you could get from the tube platforms to the BR platforms without having to leave the station, however, after following the signs we found ourselves out on the pavement (yes, I know it’s not BR any more, but it’s a handy shorthand and you all knew what I meant). Further signs directed us back into the railway infrastructure, avoiding building work – hence the deviation and we were soon on the southbound platforms.

Finsbury Park was busy, rush-hour busy, trains coming and going every few minutes. We walked slowly down to the southern end of the platforms; kindred spirits with the same objectives as ourselves were observed in nonchalant poses. All of a sudden there was a maroon class 37 passing behind a platformed class 313 or 317 (I wasn’t really paying attention) on the avoiding lines, a mild panic ensued as cameras were produced and there was train 5Z71, with 6201 on the rear now being dragged backwards into King’s Cross. We make our way to the northbound platforms and board the first train that is stopping at Hadley Wood.

Nestling between two short tunnels, Hadley Wood is a rather austere place with four platforms, only two of which are in everyday use. There is the northbound slow platform, then an island which serves the north and southbound fast lines and lastly there is the southbound slow line platform. 

We went down to the northbound slow platform and after watching some Class 91+Mk 4 sets hurrying through we decide as we are there early to go exploring outside the station where to our delight, we find a rather splendid café in a small parade of shops. We went into the café and ordered a mug of tea apiece and decided to return later for a bite to eat.

As we are finishing our drinks a young woman and her son are leaving, “Are we going to see the steam train?” she asks the toddler, “Yes!” he replies with a big grin on his face. Kerry and I look at each other, both the wrong side of fifty but also with big grins on our faces as we too left to see the steam train!

We saunter back to Hadley Wood station, choosing to go down to the rarely used, island, “fast” platforms only to be brought up by a sign proclaiming that there is no entry and that these platforms are for emergency use only; on our way down to the slow platform however we see a small group of people on the fast platforms so we decide to go and join them anyway. We take a slow walk up the platform to where that small group of like-minded souls are standing and we engage in a bit of chit-chat. After several minutes and much clock watching we are getting near the time when 6201 hauling train 1Z72, the Cathedrals Express proper, should be making an appearance

From our vantage point we can see right through the tunnel at the southern end of the station and soon there is a cry of “There she is!” and all cameras are trained (excuse the pun) in that direction. 6201 and her train are clearly visible as they plunge into the short tunnel but soon all that you can see is the high intensity headlight; then there she is indeed, bursting from the tunnel mouth and working like a good’un. Diving under the road overbridge the exhaust is flattened and billows around the loco but only momentarily as 6201 powers forward, and the exhaust beat grows louder.

There is something about the sight and sound, even the smell of a steam locomotive, they are not just machines, they become living beings and to see one working hard, doing what it was designed to do is indeed a treat for the senses.

On the opposite platform I catch sight of the woman we saw in the café, she is holding her small son in one arm and they are both waving at the train as 6201 passes in front of them and then passes us. With my video camera I attempt a panning shot to follow the train’s progress through the platform and into the short tunnel at the north end of the station. 6201 plunges in followed by 13 coaches and I’m surprised although delighted to see that the Class 37 has been misplaced somewhere. Then she’s gone and all that remains is a slight haze and a smell of coal smoke. Kerry and I return to the café for an “all day breakfast” and another mug of tea. Was it worth an early start and a couple of hours of travel just for a few fleeting glimpses? Yes it certainly was, especially to see 6201 charging through Hadley Wood.

After our hearty breakfast Kerry and I made our way towards our respective homes. Back down to King’s Cross to gain the Metropolitan Line; Kerry gets off at Euston Square for Euston and Berkhamsted. I continue to Baker Street where I pick up the train for Chesham. By the time I get back to Chesham the grey morning has been replaced by a sunny afternoon. Hmmm, Queen’s Head then, but that’s another story…

Post scriptum.

I wrote a version of this back in 2011 for my mother; I was trying to explain about fully grown men engaging in what many see as a childhood pastime, namely trainspotting. Yes, I’m a trainspotter and I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to say so.

Since I wrote that original piece my mother has sadly died. My good friend Kerry also sadly died rather unexpectedly in 2016.

The A60/62 stock on the Met line has now all been retired in favour of the S stock, newer, faster, more efficient, fewer seats. Progress?

The video below is footage that I took on the day at Willesden Junction and Hadley Wood.

Kerry appears at 2m 26s wearing a light brown hoodie, I think I was wearing a blue one, oh yes; we were paragons of Haute Couture. At 3m 13s the woman from the café, in a green coat, can be seen holding her son and waving at the train. Well, there were at least three happy boys there that day.

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