Top Gear presenter James May was in Darlington last week to manufacture the first component in the latest multi-million pound steam engine to be assembled in the town. Andy Walker went along to meet him.

SELF-CONFESSED steam locomotive enthusiast James May is no stranger to a lathe and a pair of safety goggles.

The TV presenter turned up at Darlington Locomotive Works on Thursday (February 20) and set about creating what will doubtless become a piece of railway history.

Watched by engineers and enthusiasts, he produced the first piece of Prince of Wales, which will be the most powerful steam engine on Britain’s railways when it is completed in seven years at an estimated cost of £5m.

Living up to his Top Gear nickname of Captain Slow, the celebrity spent the best part of the day patiently crafting the engine’s smoke box dart.

Assembling a steam engine isn't to be rushed - it is estimated that some 100,000 hours of work will go into the manufacturing of Prince of Wales.

For the uninitiated, a smoke box dart is the component at the front of the locomotive that keeps the smoke box door securely closed – the external portion of the dart resembles the hands on the face of a clock.

Darlington Locomotive Works, in Hopetown Lane, was the location of Mr May’s display of engineering prowess.

The works are already famous as the location where Peppercorn-class locomotive Tornado was completed in 2008.

The team behind Tornado is busily fundraising for the latest engine, a P2 class which will be numbered 2007.

Tornado has featured on Top Gear, which is how Mr May got to know Mark Allatt, a key member of the Tornado and Prince of Wales teams.

Asked whether he could be asked back to make the final piece of Prince of Wales, Mr May did not rule it out, but joked that he did not want to hog all the glory for himself.

He added: “Not many man-made machines stir the soul, but a full-blown steam locomotive is right up there, and we invented it.

“However, over the decades we’ve lost so much of the talent, skill and knowledge needed to build them.

“That’s why it’s such a thrill to work alongside the team building No. 2007 Prince of Wales, determined to not only resurrect this monster from the past, but to improve it using modern wizardry to do so.

“It’s a real privilege to know that when Prince of Wales eventually roars past me at a station, I can proudly say, along with many others, that I helped build that… and it works!”

The P2 engines were used to haul 600-tonne trains on the hilly Edinburgh to Aberdeen route.

Prince of Wales will be more technologically advanced than the other members of its class – all now long scrapped.

Mr Allatt added: “We are delighted that James agreed to craft the first part of Prince of Wales.

“He has been a fervent supporter of ours over the years with Tornado and we are very pleased to have him on board with our next adventure to build the most powerful steam locomotive to operate in the UK.

“This isn’t the first time James has got his hands dirty with us, he has been out as a volunteer member of Tornado’s support crew, helping ensure the locomotive ran smoothly.”

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