Once in a generation, perhaps a little more often, a means of transport gains iconic status, attracting public affection and admiring crowds wherever it goes.
In the steam age, there was the Flying Scotsman, and speed record-holder Mallard. In the jet age, it was Concorde in the air, and Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth 2 at sea.
Both are now gone. A few surviving examples of Concorde remain on display in museums around the world, and QE2 languishes in Dubai unsure as to whether its future will be as a floating hotel or on the scrapheap.
Today’s transport icon is its successor, Queen Mary 2, the only ship of the modern age designed for regular Transatlantic crossings in all weathers.
It is neither a cruise ship nor a liner, but a combination of the two. Its distinctive bulk – with a substantial, almost black hull topped with a white superstructure and relatively squat, red funnel – is unmistakeable.
And the crowds flock to see it. This week the ship has been on a UK cruise as part of Cunard’s 175th anniversary celebrations. Hundreds gathered on the foreshore at Cobh, the port for the Irish city of Cork, as we sailed out in late afternoon. High winds and rough seas threatened to put paid to a visit to Dublin; the ship anchored in Dublin Bay but it was some hours before it was safe to operate tenders to carry passengers ashore in Dun Laoghaire.
No such problems the next day on the Clyde, where many of QM2’s predecessors were built. We tied up at Greenock’s Clydeport, where a succession of pipers serenaded passengers as they went ashore. More pipers, Scottish country dancers, fiddlers and singers boarded the ship to put on a concert of traditional music, and a pipe band marched along the quayside late in the evening, as we prepared to sail.
Hundreds of cars and their occupants crowded the Esplanade running out of town to watch QM2 depart under a truly spectacular fusillade of fireworks.
Friday brought QM2 to the west coast port of Oban for the first time. The occasion was marked by a traditional maiden call exchange of gifts – instead of a plaque, Argyll & Bute Councillor Elaine Robertson handed Capt. Christopher Wells a Quaich, together with a miniature bottle of whisky.
During the day, the ship, anchored off Kerrera Island in Oban Sound, was once again the centre of attention; not only as an additional sight for boats more used to taking tourists out to see the seal colony, but also for passengers crowding the decks of passing CalMac ferries between Oban and Mull.
But all this has been simply a prelude to the Bank Holiday weekend events when QM2 will be in Liverpool, to be joined on Monday by sister ships Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria.
There will be a river dance as the three ships make their way up the river to the Liverpool Echo Arena, and more fireworks on Sunday and Monday evenings, together with a light show projected onto the Three Graces – the Liver Building, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board Building, and the former Cunard HQ.
Up to a million visitors are expected to arrive on Merseyside for the events. And Queen Mary 2 is in no doubt who will be the main attraction.