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Ecclesiastical allure and romance of steam

06 February 2008


From the Revd Michael Champneys

Sir, — What draws clerics to railways? David Self (Comment, 1 February) made some interesting suggestions. To them could be added the way in which the railway scene was capable of taking on a numinous quality.

Railway stations often look like churches, and the larger ones have the air of a cathedral. In the days of steam, they possessed a kind of glory. A child (a future ordinand?) standing on the concourse of one of the great termini, with the roof of an enormous Victorian train shed a hundred feet above his head, might well have felt a sense of awe.

Beyond the barrier (screen), the real business of the railway was only dimly discernible through the smoke and steam (incense). Oil lamps flickered red and white (as in a sanctuary). The whole atmosphere was evocative of the kind of Anglo-Catholic worship that was often described (in a reference to the railway company that served many of its shrines) as “London, Brighton and South Coast religion”.

Those (like Bishop Eric Treacy) who would have been more at home in a different tradition might well have found the fire and cloudy pillar at the front of their train suggestive.
Calow Rectory, Chesterfield
Derbyshire S44 5AF

From the Revd John Boyce

Sir, — Your article “What draws clerics to railways?” was interesting, but omitted certain factors, not least if you consider those many of us who also indulge in model railways, as I have since the age of six, with just a break in late teens until after theological college.

As parish clergy, we historically have larger-than-average houses; so a hobby room is (or perhaps was) often available, into which we can escape for an odd half-hour, and from which we can emerge hurriedly in a pastoral emergency. This has been true for me in all six church houses during 40 years of parish ministry. When I left my first parish, the men’s club gave me a book by the Revd Edward Beal, a notable writer on model railways.

Usually, as a group activity, this hobby is in the company of men: a group from far and wide met monthly for years in my last vicarage. This was an enjoyable change from church meetings that are often made up mainly of ladies. However pleasant these are, a balancing factor is beneficial.
3 Orchard Rise, Groombridge
Tunbridge Wells TN3 9RU

From Mr Andrew Barr

Sir, — David Self reminds us of Eric Treacy, the Bishop of Wakefield whose skill as a railway photographer must have made diocesan visitations a particular pleasure. Treacy’s photographs were described as “lyrical”, and his collaboration with the author O. S. Nock in Main Lines across the Border remains an inspiration for this enthusiast’s daydreams.

Today, at least one member of the House of Bishops keeps the link alive. In the 1950s, boys at Rugby School had a steam-loving chaplain to minister to their spiritual needs. The Revd A. W. V. Mace, a gentle priest, is credited with spectacular photographs of the railways of south-east England between 1930 and 1960. At Rugby, his prematurely white hair created the legend that he had once lain with his camera between the rails.

Could the first priest-trainspotter be John Mason Neale, the hymn-translator and President of the Cambridge Camden Society? Around 1840, he recorded a journey on the London and Birmingham Railway. With engineering works at Rugby (nothing changes), he had to travel part of the way by coach, but described the new invention as the train took over. “A lively sight to see the coolness with which the engine-drivers loll over their little domain, and the ease with which the huge thing rolls up and stops.” But Neale adds: “I will agree with every one as to the immense moral mischief that railroads will cause to England.”

This year, the Lambeth bishops will once again travel up from Canterbury for “London” day. Surely there could be no better ice-breaker than to follow A. W. V. Mace’s favourite route on one of the heritage steam-hauled trips in the Golden Arrow Pullman cars.
60 Main Street, Pathhead
Midlothian EH37 5QB

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