Tasting the past

On 9 January 1863, the first subterranean railway journey took place between Paddington and Farringdon on the newly completed Metropolitan Underground Railway. A clutch of shareholders, City worthies and assorted VIPs were taken on a ceremonial run and then feasted at a 600-person banquet at Farringdon station. Just over 150 years later, the historic event was recreated as steam powered engines returned to the tunnels to celebrate an engineering, economic and social achievement.

I got off the Hammersmith and City Line service at King’s Cross St. Pancras planning to head to the surface and catch a bus home. At every station we had passed through since Paddington the Sunday evening stations had been slightly strange; clusters of people had gathered at each end of the platforms with a range of digital SLRs, tripods and plain point and click cameras.

It was only when I got off at King’s Cross and saw an even larger contingent of camera wielding enthusiasts that I remembered what was happening. On Sunday 13 January 2013, London Underground was running a steam-powered engine along with Victorian rolling stock along sections of the Metropolitan Line to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the world’s first underground passenger railway. With this fortunate timing, I would be an inadvertent witness of a little bit of London Underground history and be able pay my own respects to the network and all those who had built and served it since.

There was no other sign that anything out of the ordinary was about to happen. The platform display screens announced the next three services: a Barking train in one minute, three minutes for the next Aldgate train and a Circle Line train following in five minutes. Each one dutifully arrived on time; the Aldgate train was one of the Metropolitan Line’s brand new S8 Stock trains, providing a decidedly slick, curved and digital modern contrast to what was to come.

The renovated underground station at King’s Cross St. Pancras is similarly modern – spotless white walls, muted lighting and cavernous ticket and escalator halls. The sub-surface platforms are similarly slick homes for the electric rolling stock. A smooth hum signals the arrival of a new train, the doors open with a cheery, side-lit fanfare and they leave with the distinctive and increasingly urgent pitch of their regenerative brakes returning power for an accelerated departure.

The contrast with the fourth service to arrive could not have been starker. Labelled on the platform display as being ‘Out of Service’, an increasingly loud, mechanical clunking sound combined with a faint but unmistakable hiss sparked a ripple of delight amongst the assembled crowd. Then, out of the black tunnel, surged the restored Met Locomotive Number 1, announcing its arrival with a series of delighted blasts of its whistle.

People on the platform applauded, a few whistled back and there was at least one whoop of joy. The rest of the train comprised the cream of restored rolling stock suitable for the period, including the Metropolitan Railway Jubilee Carriage 353 built in 1892. Shining, varnished and polished for their big day, the carriages were gleaming, each one embellished with the intricate painted crest of the Metropolitan Underground Railway and clear golden numbering. These coaches had slam doors, slide windows and individual compartments, a clear contrast to their automated, walkthrough and electric successors.

The engine was greeted with a brilliant eruption of flashes as the locomotive received intense photographic attention that would put a red-carpeted starlet to shame. Most of the people on the platform knew why this train had arrived, but there were plenty of regular Underground users who were completely perplexed by this jolting, hissing arrival from the mid-nineteenth century. The carriages were crammed with those lucky or foresighted enough to have obtained tickets. Some were in full Victorian costume, whilst up front a team of at least five overalled firemen and drivers worked together to keep the unfamiliar technology happy.

A final blast of the whistle signalled the train’s departure, but not before the driver delighted everyone with a huge belch of steam from the distinctive black chimney. The thick, grey cloud belched out, erupting like a miniature volcano before quickly hitting the roof and dispersing out throughout the platform. It was perhaps the most evocative and thrilling part of this brief encounter with the past.

The smoke was sweeter smelling than I had imagined. It was pungent and distinctive but not as acrid as I had feared. Then came the taste: the steam did not affect the nose nearly as much as it choked the mouth. This unexpected taste of the past stayed with me long after other smells had diverted my nose. This was, of course, just one train. It made me imagine what the Underground was like when running a full timetable of steam trains.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me. Fortunately, plenty of photos are available at Ian Visits and the BBC.