A very fine lady celebrated her birthday recently: 81 years ago, on the 18th of December 1937, LNER Class A4 4464 came into service as “Bittern”. I wanted to make something for the occasion, so here is Bittern receiving an early morning visit from her namesake. The real Bittern can’t really enjoy the sunshine right now: she’s stored awaiting overhaul since her boiler ticket expired. Once fixed up she should be good for another eight years – and hopefully many more after that. Together with 60009 Union of South African and 60007 Sir Nigel Gresley she is currently only one of three operational A4s – soon to be two, as South Africa is bound for retirement next year. She’s had quite the career. In 2009 she completed a 188-mile non-stop run, and in 2013 she set a new speed record for preserved British steam, clocking in at 93 miles per hour.
Though it’s easy to forget after seven impressive years, her presence on the mainline wasn’t always so self-evident. WWII brought her heavier loads than her class was actually designed for, and afterwards maintenance was minimal under British Railways since the end of steam loomed. Though she was bought for preservation in 1966, her frames were cracked and she was in overall poor condition. Time, money and skills to restore her to working order were lacking. So she lived life as a static exhibit until 2001, when improved technology and a new owner finally promised the long-awaited overhaul. In 2007 Bittern returned to steam, for the first time in over 30 years. And so the world gained another beautiful steam loco fit to run and show them how on the mainline.