IT was one of those occasions when no one knew quite what to do. In the end, no one did anything and 40 years ago the final journey of the last mainline steam train in Britain began in total silence.

About two thousand spectators had crammed into Lime Street station, Liverpool, on the morning of Sunday, August 11, 1968, to witness what they believed would be the death of the golden age of the railways. But as Stanier class locomotive 45110 slowly pulled away from the platform, belching smoke and hissing steam, not one person raised a cheer or shed a tear. Not out loud anyway.

Then, suddenly, the air was filled with the sound of two thousand cameras clicking and whirring to capture the historic scene for posterity. As if in reply, the locomotive let out a long, eerie shrieking whistle that echoed around the station's cavernous roof like the last scream of a dying animal.

Right in the middle on the front row, in about as prime position as the elbowing crowds would allow, was young John Beck. His face was centre stage in the iconic image of the day, which dominated news coverage of the event and later appeared on book covers and in railway magazines.

Today, John is head of art and design at the Chase College in Malvern, but back in 1968, he and three mates were among the crush at Lime Street.

He recalled: "The one great memory of the day is the silence that fell over the whole platform - in fact the entire station - as the train inched forward and then reluctantly began its farewell. The hush seemed unreal, even surreal and the feeling right through my bones that something significant was happening will always stay with me.

"It was as if nobody knew quite what to do. Eventually, after what seemed an eternity, the silence was broken by some tentative clapping."

The train got its name from the fact the 420 passengers on board had each paid 15 guineas to be part of history. For their money, they were taken on a 314-mile round trip from Liverpool to Manchester and Carlisle and back. On the way there was a cold lunch with champagne, high tea and other refreshments and everyone received a souvenir scroll and a ticket. John said: "How I wished I was one of the lucky people on board. I remember thinking it somehow seemed unbelievable there would be no more steam after that day. That's what we all thought then. The death of steam. That's what everyone was saying. The railyards were already full of locomotives waiting to be broken up. Little did we know there would be a new steam era with the emergence of the preservation scene."

John Beck was born in New Brighton on the Wirral, a short ferry across the Mersey from Liverpool and first became entranced by steam railways in the late 1950s, when his family travelled by train for summer holidays in the Lake District.

John became much more than just a train spotter and as a teenager travelled all over the country looking at railway sheds and other parts of the steam scene.

With the final steam journey taking place on his doorstep, it was a day not to be missed. The train was due to depart Lime Street station at 9.10 on the morning of August 11 and well before John rendezvoused with three friends Michael Priestley, Graham Sullivan and Ian Hughes.

He said: "We thought we would be nice and early, but we hadn't anticipated how many people would be there that morning. They were hugging the platforms and anywhere that would give a half decent view. The place was heaving.

"We made the considered decision of which platform to go for and then slowly went about moving along it to see how far we could get. Amazingly we made it virtually to the end, just before the platform edge sloped away. We stood there among the crowds, taking in the atmosphere of this very special occasion. Everyone seemed to have a camera. It was exciting, but sad at the same time because no one thought they would see steam again. This was, we thought, the end."

The locomotive chosen to pull the 10-coach train out of Lime Street was a "bread and butter" Stanier class no 45110, known as The Black 5. This hauled to Manchester Victoria where the bigger Britannia Pacific class Oliver Cromwell took over for the long stage to Carlisle via Blackburn and Ais Gill.

The Stanier took over again at Manchester on the return trip, but when it eventually rolled back into Lime Street at 19.50pm at the end of its historic journey, the platform was almost deserted.

"There was hardly anyone there to see it return," said John, "which looking back today probably seems strange. But we'd had all our excitement in the morning and the day was a bit flat by then."

FOOTNOTES TO A DAY IN HISTORYThere are two footnotes to this story.

First, by happy co-incidence, the Stanier class loco 45110 never went to the great scrapyard in the sky.

It was rescued, restored and is now one of the stars of the Severn Valley Railway, which runs between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth.

Second, John Beck's father worked in the centre of Liverpool in the early Sixties and every lunchtime used to walk past the entrance to the Cavern Club in Matthew Street.

John said: "From street level he could hear the Beatles playing down in the basement,"but he never went in."

Which was as bad, if not worse, than missing the last day of steam.