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What draws clerics to railways?

30 January 2008

David Self teases out the appeal for clergy of the ordered world of trains

Spectacular scenery: the Duchess of Sutherland locomotive crosses the Ribblehead viaduct on the Settle to Carlisle line PA

Spectacular scenery: the Duchess of Sutherland locomotive crosses the Ribblehead viaduct on the Settle to Carlisle line PA

The Revd Wilbert Vere Awdry became Vicar of Emneth in the diocese of Ely in 1953. It is believed that he was attracted to the parish because it included part of the old Wisbech and Upwell tramway, along which two trains of fruit vans and other freight wagons trundled each day at a stately 12 miles per hour. A rural roadside railway, its trains were hauled by steam engines that looked like garden sheds on wheels — and on fire.

The Revd W. V. Awdry had already published the first titles in his Thomas the Tank Engine series, and one of the Wisbech locos eventually had a story of its own — Toby the Tram Engine. The author’s passion for railways was by no means untypical: there is an extraordinary and continuing correlation between being in Anglican orders and being a “railfan”.

Not every one takes it as seriously, though, as the Revd Richard Patten, who, 40 years ago, bought his own full-size steam locomotive, 73050, and so began the restoration of the Nene Valley Railway near Peterborough.

In the 1950s, most enthusiasts were merely trainspotters. Folklore suggests that a few clerics could always then be found on the ends of platforms at Crewe, York, and (for some mysterious reason) Worcester Shrub Hill. The one spotter whom the others always wanted to “cop” (their word for “spot”) was the Revd Eric Treacy, a distinguished railway photographer. His stylish black-and-white photos of classic steam locomotives illuminated the pages of Railway Magazine and Train Illustrated.

He took up photography in Liverpool in 1932, the same year as he was made deacon, after his interest was sparked by a visit to Lime Street station. He spent hours in subsequent years trying to capture what he saw as the “magic” of railways, but also found time to become Suffragan Bishop of Pontefract, and later Bishop of Wakefield.

He died suddenly in 1978, while photographing a special train at Appleby in Cumbria on the spectacular Settle to Carlisle line.

There was nothing comic in the ’50s about being interested in trains. Boys wanted to become engine-drivers. In the 1952 Ealing comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt, it was perfectly natural that the leading light in the village’s attempts to preserve its branch line should be the parson, the Revd Samuel Weech. Over the next ten years, however, the railway enthusiast became a figure of fun: a gormless, spotty loner, obsessed by numbers and timetables, and always clutching Biro and notebook.

Forty years on, there was even an attempt (in research reported in Trends in Cognitive Sciences in June 2002) to define trainspotters as people with a form of Asperger syndrome, as they had a strong desire to order the world.

In 2001, the National Autistic Society conducted research among children with autism to explore their frequent attraction to Thomas the Tank Engine. Among the survey’s findings was the way that many children with autism regard Thomas much as others cherish a comfort blanket. They seem to appreciate the clear plot lines of the stories, the predictability of the characterisation, and the fact that, if something goes wrong, it will be put right by the conclusion. They also seem fascinated by the engines’ faces.

All this is not to draw cheap parallels or to make bad jokes about clerics and those with autism or Asperger syndrome. Even so, it is possible to see both ecclesiastical and psychological reasons why watching trains should appeal especially to those in ministry.

The person who travels by rail only occasionally might find the experience stressful and perplexing. To the cognoscenti, however, railways are predictable. For every delay, there is a cause. It is a world of facts and realities, a world where (with luck) it is possible to see all — even if it is only every locomotive of a given type. It is the perfect antidote to the often more nebulous realm of theology.

Similarly, for the clerical railway modeller, the layout in the loft presents an opportunity to create a parallel world, where everything runs to order, and at times and in ways you dictate — unlike normal parish life.

Its appeal is not exclusively Anglican or British. An American website (www.steamingpriest.com) reveals that many Roman Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, and rabbis relax by playing trains.

Its appeal is not exclusively Anglican or British. An American website (www.steamingpriest.com) reveals that many Roman Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, and rabbis relax by playing trains.

It was the former Chancellor Denis Healey who once stressed the importance of a politician’s hinterland — an interest in areas other than politics. Ted Heath had his sailing and music, and John Major his cricket, and now Gordon Brown professes an interest in soccer. Lord Healey himself enjoys photography and literature. Such interests are not just a means of escape or relaxation, important as these may be. They are evidence of a rounded personality.

It is equally important that the clergy should have their own hinterlands: interests outside matters purely theological or, worse, ecclesiastical. This is not just for their own sanity, but to help them relate more easily to the world outside the Church. It can also contribute to developing an inner calm. For some, their hinterland will be their family. For others, it will be cricket — a world where, for a few hours, you are isolated on the pitch and unable to be got at. Many have found a similar escape at the end of a station platform.

  In his book Platform Souls (Orion, 1995) — possibly the only intelligent apologia for trainspotting — Nicholas Whittaker describes an open day at a railway depot. “Hauling myself up into the cab of E3003 . . . I bump into my first clergyman. He is semi-disguised in trainers and jeans, but his tweedy jacket and dog collar are a dead giveaway. Perched in the driver’s seat, he . . . whistles high-speed fantasies through his teeth.”

Why mock such happiness? Trainspotting must be one of the most harmless and inexpensive hobbies. It can be pursued alone or with friends, and is surprisingly democratic. Your profession (or lack of one) is irrelevant: it is the trains that matter. I am, however, still waiting to cop my first female clerical spotter.

David Self is a former BBC radio producer who writes regularly for The Times Educational Supplement.

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