Remembering the thrill of a ride on Black Prince

PUBLISHED: 22:09 15 September 2019 | UPDATED: 22:09 15 September 2019

The beautiful Black Prince

The beautiful Black Prince

(c) copyright

Paul Barnes is looking back on a brilliant rail journey

What a pleasure it was on the last day of August to see a handsome old acquaintance adorning page three of the EDP, with a healthy head of steam, gleaming paintwork and a clutch of carriages done out in what used to be called "plum and spilt milk". The old acquaintance happened to be locomotive number 92203, a British Railways Standard Class 9F 2-10-0, conceived as a heavy goods engine but fleet-footed enough to take a turn at passenger work, and now resident on the North Norfolk Railway.

It was retired years ago and might have gone for scrap if the painter David Shepherd hadn't come along. He'd just had a successful exhibition of his paintings in New York and reckoned the takings might 
run to the purchase of a 9F. Number 92203 was only eight years old, in good working order and he paid £3,000 for it. He'd already put his name down for another engine, British Railways Standard Class 4 number 75029. Now he needed to find a home for both. Enter the Army. At Longmoor in Hampshire the transport division had its own railway system, about 70 miles of it. Thanks to some generous Army connections David's engines would be welcome, but first they had to get there from the sheds at Crewe.

Initially, some boneheaded BR bureaucrat said they had to go by road. Then another stone-brained bureaucrat said they could go by rail but behind a diesel, overlooking the fact that two nearly new locomotives were perfectly capable of moving under their own steam. But they didn't reckon with David's cheerful tenacity. Eventually common sense prevailed. In the shining dawn of April 6, 1968 the fires were bright, wheels began to turn, a chorus of whistles sounded, and the shed staff removed their caps in a gesture of mock sorrow, though some were surely concealing pangs of real regret.

The signal cleared; 92203 and 75029 were on their way. David was leading on the footplate of one, while I followed on the footplate of the other, playing truant from Carnforth where I was working on Black Five my film about the last of BR's working steam locomotives.

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The EDP item reminded me that I made notes about the trip, alas not quite so detailed as I'd remembered, just a few cryptic words on a couple of pages torn from a spiral-bound reporter's notebook. "Gresley left at Crewe" is a reminder that 92203 and 75029 had been sharing the shed with distinguished company, the streamlined Pacific locomotive Sir Nigel Gresley.

"Fat driver on at Derby" refers to the crew change when space on 92203's footplate was suddenly made smaller as this very large man in overalls heaved himself aboard. David and I swapped engines here, changing over 
again at Wellingborough where we took on water and one of the firemen burst into tears. "Shepherd lost hat" was when David leaning from his cab, revelling in the sound and scent of his engines, had his precious engine-driver's grease-top cap whipped away by the wind.

And so on to Cricklewood where both engines were stabled for the night. Most of the coal loaded at Crewe had been burned by now but there was a wagon full of the stuff waiting for us. Cricklewood's coaling plant had long since been dismantled but many willing hands plied many shiny shovels to fill the tenders up again. It took them half an hour.

Next day we went from the Midland Region on to the Southern, next stop Hounslow and another crew change. By now the journey had been in the news, broadcast and print. Spectators and parked cars lined the route. "Steam forever," we heard often. The platforms at Hounslow were heaving as the crowds clustered close; people on the bridge at Guildford station had a better view and the bonus of a whiff of smoke.

Journey's end was at Longmoor Station. The fire of 75029 was dropped but 92203 chuffed up and down for a while to give the welcoming multitude a treat.

Some of you might be wondering: why mention only the engines' numbers and not their names? Because when we went from Crewe to Longmoor their numbers were all they had; it was only later in the year that David decided to name them: Black Prince and Green Knight, not as some historical or Arthurian tribute; he just thought there could be no better names.

And in my opinion he got it about right.

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