How did one of Britain's last steam locomotives end up stranded in a field on the Essex/Cambridgeshire border?
PUBLISHED: 06:00 11 August 2018
Fifty years ago - on August 11 1968 - the very last British Railways steam service ran, an excursion around the north west of England, but East Anglia featured large in the postscript to this big event.
The last BR steam service ran from Liverpool and Manchester to Carlisle across some of the most scenic routes in the north west of England.
Four steam locomotives were involved in the trip – the best-known being Britannia Class Pacific locomotive Oliver Cromwell which had started its working life on the Great Eastern Main Line hauling express trains between Norwich, Ipswich and London.
Oliver Cromwell was already assured a future in preservation at the time of the run – it was part of the National Rail Museum collection.
But at that time the NRM did not have its York headquarters and it had already been decided the engine would be retired to the Bressingham Steam Museum near Diss, right in the heart of its former stomping ground.
But Cromwell was not the only steam locomotive to end up in East Anglia after the special run. However the final result for the other engine was not so good!
The three other engines involved in the final excursion were all “Black Fives” designed by Sir William Stanier for the London Midland and Scottish Railway in the 1930s.
They were the workhorses of the rail network, used on both passenger and freight trains and were reliable and easy to maintain.
Two of those used of the final excursion were preserved and have operated on the main line and preserved railways since 1968.
However the third had a somewhat sadder end in a field on the Essex/Cambridgeshire border!
The locomotive was bought by Columbia pictures to be used in the film “The Virgin Soldiers,” set in Malaya (now Malaysia) in the 1950s.
The story involved a train being blown up by terrorists, and the film company decided to use the disused rail line between Audley End and Haverhill at Bartlow.
Although the explosion looked spectacular on screen, great care was taken not to cause too much damage to the locomotive – which was due to be sold on to an enthusiast and could have been returned to service on a preserved line very easily.
However the new owner of the locomotive could not afford BR’s fee to re-rail and transport the engine to a new home – so it was cut up by a scrap dealer on site.
Before there is too much distress at the loss of this heritage, 18 Black Fives have been preserved since the end of steam. Most have been returned to working order and they are the mainstay of many preserved lines.
There is not a resident member of this class in East Anglia (they were not an LNER loco after all) but preserved examples have regularly visited steam galas at the North Norfolk Railway based at Sheringham.
Oliver Cromwell spent 36 years at Bressingham, some of the time steaming up and down a short stretch of track, but in 2004 it was moved by the NRM to the Great Central Railway in Loughborough, Leicestershire, where it was restored to full working order.
After four years Cromwell returned to the main line and was able to haul a 40th anniversary special of the “final train” in August 2008. It has also made several visits to East Anglia.
Its most recent visit was in February on one of its last main-line trips before its 10-yearly overhaul. It can no longer run on Network Rail but it can operate on preserved lines until the end of the year and it is due to be the star guest at the North Norfolk Railway’s steam gala at the end of this month.
It will then be overhauled back in Loughborough and is expected to resume mainline running within a year or two.
Although August 11, 1968 was the official end of steam, there are still hundreds of steam locomotives operating around the country on preserved lines and pulling main line specials.
Preserved railways are major tourist attractions – in this region there are many preserved lines and two of the finest narrow-gauge lines in England in Norfolk.
The Mid Norfolk Railway is one of the longest in the country. The North Norfolk has some of the finest views and is well-established. The Mid Suffolk Light Railway is reviving a rural curiosity. And the Bure Valley and Wells and Walsingham are great narrow-gauge lines.
At the time August 11 1968 was seen as the end of steam in Great Britain. In fact it was just the start of something huge!