Racing past Didcot Railway Centre last week aboard a London-bound train, I glanced towards the locomotive shed and was rewarded with a glimpse of an example of the one class of British steam engine ever to reach — just once — the speed at which I would very soon be travelling on my journey to the capital, the speed at which the InterCity 125s have operated on a daily basis throughout their long working lives.

These trains, as many will know, take their name from the speed concerned, 125mph. The engine I saw at Didcot, its characteristic wedge-shaped nose jutting out into the yard, exhaust fumes drifting from its double chimney, was named as a tribute to its designer, Sir Nigel Gresley. He had been knighted the previous year, a rare honour for a locomotive engineer. That the sword was wielded by Edward VIII, in his brief period as king, was a rare thing too. Completed at Doncaster works on October 30, 1937, the lovely locomotive was his 100th Pacific for the London and North Eastern Railway (hence the naming) and the 21st of the A4 streamliners, a class that later achieved immortality through the exploits of an engine soon to be built. On July 3, 1938, 4468 Mallard, with driver Joseph Duddington at the controls, pulling six coaches and a dynamometer car, set a world speed record — never since beaten — of 126mph on the descent of Stoke Bank, north of Peterborough.

This great achievement was well known to me in childhood, since I was brought up in Peterborough and considered the locomotive something of a local ‘celebrity’. She was shedded at King’s Cross and was a near-daily performer on expresses through the city, her badges of honour proudly displayed on the sides of her streamlined casing.

No 60007 Sir Nigel Gresley was another locomotive from Top Shed familiar to me in my train-spotting days. She (if this styling does not seem absurd) was also no slouch where speed was concerned. On May 23, 1959, again on the descent from Stoke Bank, regular driver Bill Hoole, who was shortly to retire, achieved a post-war record maximum for steam of 112mph on a special run to mark the golden jubilee of the Stephenson Locomotive Society.

Hoole later admitted that his ambition had been to claim Mallard’s record, but this had been vetoed by higher authorities in British Railways.

A story I relish concerning Sir Nigel Gresley was supplied by a reader of Gray Matter a decade or more ago (so long ago, in fact, that I can’t track it down on our digital archive). This gentleman — a retired vicar from memory — wrote to say he had spent happy childhood holidays in pre-war days in Norfolk. A neighbouring property belonged to Gresley who generally travelled there with his family and all their luggage for their summer break in a private train. His preferred choice of motive power was — you guessed! — none other than A4 4498 (as she was numbered then) Sir Nigel Gresley. Stylish or what?

Ironically, just last month the locomotive was denied permission for a journey to the same county by Network Rail. She was to have been the star attraction at a steam gala organised by the North Norfolk Railway. At the last minute it was ruled she was too heavy for the tracks between Norwich and Sheringham.

At Didcot, Sir Nigel Gresley was sharing the limelight during her visit with two other locomotives decked out in the same wonderful blue livery applied in 1949 to top engines to burnish the image of the newly nationalised British Railways.

One was No 6023 King Edward II, a member of the Great Western Railway’s most powerful class of express passenger locomotives. Designed by C.B. Collett, they were used on the GWR’s heaviest duties, including The Cornish Riviera Express and the Paddington-Birmingham Inter-City (this being, from 1950, the first use of the name). Rescued from Barry scrapyard, the source of so many locomotives in preservation, she was restored during two decades of painstaking work at Didcot.

The other was the new-build locomotive, No 60163 Tornado. This famous A1 Pacific is a member of a fine class of express engines designed by A.H. Peppercorn. The original 49 were all scrapped. Tornado was built from scratch over 20 years at Darlington Locomotive Works at a cost of £3m, money very well spent in my view.

I was lucky enough to travel on one of the first outings with the engine. It was a marvellous thing to see an A1 in steam again, reviving my memories of the class in its 1950s heyday, pounding the East Coast main line on trains like The Aberdonian, The Yorkshire Pullman, The Heart of Midlothian and The Flying Scotsman.

The last, of course, is also the name of an engine, another Gresley Pacific, arguably (Mallard competes) his best known.

A confusion between engines and trains is one that dogs newspaper reports of railway stories. There was one in the Daily Telegraph last week, where a picture of the Didcot get-together appeared under the headline “Why Mallard was the best train in the business”.

The whole article was a veritable pig’s ear (for which no apology was printed). The three engines were all wrongly identified, with Sir Nigel Gresley ludicrously said to have been Mallard, which is a static exhibit in York Railway Museum and unlikely ever to be steamed again.