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Robson Green tells the remarkable story of Flying Scotsman whilst spending a year with the men rebuilding the most famous steam engine in the world.
If they succeed he will have the opportunity to fullfill a boyhood dream and ride on its footplate.
It is February and Robson meets the works director and team leader, Colin Green, who shows him Flying Scotsman and gets him to do some welding. Robson wants to discover why they believe it is so important to rebuild what some might regard as a boiling kettle on wheels. In search for answers in the Durham Coalfield near his own home, Robson discovers how steam changed the world.
Driving on to Doncaster, the town that built the Scotsman, he meet sprightly 93 year old Peter Townend, who worked in the very same plant and shares his memories of conditions for workers in it. Robson discovers that Peter can hardly hear, a consequence of working in a ‘mad house’ with noise levels unimaginable.
As we reach May, the team are re-wheeling Flying Scotsman and putting on its boiler. Chargehand Greg McGill leads the team for the day and Robson helps wheel expert David Smith to put a tyre on a wheel. Then he’s off to the North York Moors where he tells a remarkable, and for Robson, emotional, story of how Flying Scotsman came into his family in dramatic fashion. During the General Strike in Britain in 1926 men from his great grandfather’s trade union, The Northumberland Miner’s Federation, derailed the train. Seven men went to jail and Flying Scotsman’s reputation was soured.
At the North Yorkshire Moors Railway he meets historian Robert Gwynne who shows him a brilliant invention by the Scotsman’s original designer, Nigel Gresley, which allowed the train to drive from London to Edinburgh without stopping – a world first - and helped turn Flying Scotsman into a global brand. Robson experiences a taste of the sauna like heat pouring out of the train’s fire box measuring 42ft square and is shown how this device would have been operated by the crew.
After the end of the Second World War, steam engines became scrap as Britain modernised. Flying Scotsman was bound for the furnace and Robson travels to North Wales to meet the woman whose father saved the engine by stepping in at the eleventh hour and paying £3,000 for the privilege. He meets Penny Vaudoyer on the Ffestiniog Railway, a narrow gauge railway in the Welsh mountains and where her father, Alan Pegler, first focused his passion for steam revival.
Penny tells an open mouthed Robson how her father came into the nine year old’s bedroom to say he had bought a steam engine. With the help of lovely colour 16mm film shot by a friend of her father, she describes how Alan ran the engine around Britain until 1968 when the authorities stopped all steam and Pegler took the Scotsman to America.
The adventures in America are brought to life by two women who were recruited to help promote the tour. 50 years on Robson, Anna Turner and Tania Hopkinson roar with laughter at their experiences.
Back in the workshop it’s July and after helping Colin Green to fix two steam pipes to the Scotsman, there is a poignant and emotional moment as Robson shows Penny Vaudoyer around the engine she once knew so well and which bankrupted her father.
Robson journeys south to the Chiltern Hills near the River Thames to find out how Flying Scotsman survived the bankruptcy of its owner whilst it was left stranded in the USA. He meets one of Britain’s eccentric aristocrats, Sir William McAlpine. Walking beside the station and steam locomotive in his garden, Robson finds out just how passionate ‘Bill’ was and remains about steam and why he paid a handsome price to rescue the Scotsman.
He says: “I could not let it rot in the States and become a hotel.”
In his final visit to the workshop Robson helps Teriann O’Connor, the only woman in the team, to paint Flying Scotsman, as it nears completion. After a year in the workshop, Flying Scotsman is ready for its first test run and Robson does indeed get the opportunity to live a dream and ride on the footplate of the world’s most famous steam engine.