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All steamed up about trains

by
15 June 2011

On the centenary of the birth of the Revd W. V. Awdry, creator of Thomas the Tank Engine, Ed Beavan asks why so many clergy are railway buffs

IT IS a truth universally acknow­ledged that the clergy love trains. As surely as a newly appointed bishop will list one of his hobbies as hillwalking, so you can wager that where there is a steam train, there, among the throng, will be an enthusiast in a clerical collar.

Whether for steam or electric, a model railway in the attic or the 10.22 to Penzance, the clergy have always had a passion for things that run on rails.

I can vouch for this from personal experience, being the son of a Vicar. My father loved taking the whole family on train trips during the summer holidays, as numerous photographs of me next to an engine on the Talyllyn Railway, in north Wales, or some other far-flung steam-train line, testify.

The connection between the clergy and trains is perhaps best exemplified by the Revd Wilbert Vere Awdry (better known as the Revd W. Awdry), the priest who created Thomas the Tank Engine and wrote 26 books as part of his much-loved Railway Series.

I can vouch for this from personal experience, being the son of a Vicar. My father loved taking the whole family on train trips during the summer holidays, as numerous photographs of me next to an engine on the Talyllyn Railway, in north Wales, or some other far-flung steam-train line, testify.

The connection between the clergy and trains is perhaps best exemplified by the Revd Wilbert Vere Awdry (better known as the Revd W. Awdry), the priest who created Thomas the Tank Engine and wrote 26 books as part of his much-loved Railway Series.

On Wednesday, fans of his books celebrated the centenary of his birth. The anthropomorphised locomotives have proved hugely popular — more than two million Thomas the Tank Engine books have been sold around the world since the publication of the first story in 1945.

The books were later turned into a children’s television programme, narrated by the former Beatle Ringo Starr, and generations of children have grown up enjoying the adventures of Thomas, Gordon, Percy, the Fat Controller, and friends.

Awdry trained for ordination at Wycliffe Hall, in Oxford, and taught at St George’s School in Jerusalem. He served his title in King’s Norton, Birmingham, and then served as a vicar in Cambridgeshire.

He was said to have thought up the stories originally to entertain his son, who was ill with measles. Awdry inherited the train bug from his father, also a clergyman, who had a passion for railways, and built a steam model railway in the garden.

As well as writing the books, Awdry was involved in railway pre­servation, and loved model railways, which he exhibited around the country.

WHY is it that the clergy — from assistant cur­ates to diocesan bishops — seem to have this inherent love of trains? Are there more “anoraks” among the clergy than there are in other professions?

Perhaps one of the people best qualified to comment is the Bishop of Bedford, the Rt Revd Richard Inwood, the author of Moved by Steam: Beside the tracks and on the trains 1962-67, who spent many of his teenage years photographing steam trains across the country.

“I was brought up in Burton-on-Trent, where there was a remarkable railway system for the breweries, which sent beer all over the country,” he says. “Through my teenage years, in the late 1950s and 1960s, my co-author Mike Smith and I travelled around taking 4500 photographs of steam trains.”

Bishop Inwood did not go on to develop the same passion for diesel and electric trains, and finds heritage railways too “pristine” for his liking, but he still enjoys travelling on the rail network. Last year, he drove a saddle-tank steam train as a birthday treat.

“What really interested me was the historical stuff, when trains were part of national life. The sad thing is how many lines were reduced. I’m still interested in railway operations, and watch out for things, like when a train switches lines if there is track maintenance.”

Bishop Inwood acknowledges that the phenomenon of the close coup­ling of clergy and trains is “fairly remarkable”. “My best man was a clergy­man who was interested in trains,” he says. “My wife believes there are just as high a proportion of people in other professions who like trains, but I think people find it strange that clergy have ordinary inter­ests such as the railways.

“But it’s steam trains which are particularly interesting: there’s much more life about a steam train than a ‘box on wheels’. The naked raw power of a steam engine and its at­tract­ive sound are much more evo­cative than an electric train.

“It’s an elemental power that’s attractive, maybe because the clergy’s professional life is to do with God, who is the ultimate power — there is a connection there.”

Bishop Inwood is not the first bishop to photograph trains. The late Dr Eric Treacy, Bishop of Wake­field 1968-76, also published several books on the subject, and had a steam locomotive named after him (News, 21 May 2010). It is perhaps appro­priate that he died while waiting at Appleby Station on his beloved Settle-Carlisle line.

IT SEEMS that many clergy de­velop a passion for trains from a childhood experience of train­spotting. The former Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd Graham Dow, and his younger brother, Canon Andrew Dow, were both “hooked on trainspotting” as children, and had a model railway in their garden.

IT SEEMS that many clergy de­velop a passion for trains from a childhood experience of train­spotting. The former Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd Graham Dow, and his younger brother, Canon Andrew Dow, were both “hooked on trainspotting” as children, and had a model railway in their garden.

Canon Dow, a former Archdeacon of Cheltenham, who served on the General Synod, became something of a national celebrity in the ’60s and ’70s, thanks to his uncanny ability to imitate the sound of steam trains, trains on the London Underground, and other forms of transport.

His talent as a train-mimic led to an appearance on the Today pro­gramme, when Jack de Manio was the presenter. He was also on Opportunity Knocks and Blue Peter, and even went as far afield as Japan, where he appeared on Fuji TV.

Now retired, Canon Dow says that his gift has come in useful for waking up bored Scouts in church-parade services, and occasionally he has used it as a way of sharing the gospel.

He, too, believes that the clergy connect with the raw power of steam engines, and that, because so many priests are egoists and performers, they connect with the steam engine as a performer.

He is still a model-railway en-thus­i­ast, and has recreated the defunct Somerset line from Bath to Bourne­mouth at his home. He met Awdry at a model-railway exhibition in Lon­don in the 1970s, and was a big fan of his books.

“Awdry’s legacy is that a steam engine is human, and often his creations reminded you of parish­ioners, such as grumpy Gordon.

“I also think there’s a huge link between Christianity and the rail­ways. Christianity is a journey, a journey you can’t do on your own, and the gospel is like a train you have to get on. Railwaymen also call the track ‘the way’, which links in with Jesus’s words in John 14.6.”

THERE appear to be many clergy who use the lawn of their vicarage or rectory to ac­com­modate a model railway. The Rector of Layer de la Haye and Layer Breton, near Colchester, Essex, the Revd Martin Clarke, is a member of the Hornby Railway Collectors Asso­cia­tion, and recently held a model-railway exhibi­tion in his church hall to raise money for the church.

THERE appear to be many clergy who use the lawn of their vicarage or rectory to ac­com­modate a model railway. The Rector of Layer de la Haye and Layer Breton, near Colchester, Essex, the Revd Martin Clarke, is a member of the Hornby Railway Collectors Asso­cia­tion, and recently held a model-railway exhibi­tion in his church hall to raise money for the church.

He uses his train sets, which are popular with children, as a sideshow at fêtes, and sees many con­nec­tions between ministry and trains. “Both are about travel. Chris­tian pilgrimage is about travelling, a bit like on the railways. The driver has to look out for signals, and, in the same way, we have the Bible as a signal for us to observe and obey.”

Mr Clarke believes that the moral code promoted in Awdry’s books was a factor in their appeal.

HIS near-neighbour and fellow model-railway enthusiast, the Revd Stephen Northfield, Vicar of St Andrew’s, Hatfield Peverel, with All Saints’, Ulting, has a 0-gauge three-rail track in the garden, and about 20 model engines, which are a popular attraction at vicarage coffee-mornings.

Mr Northfield inherited his father’s Hornby railway sets, and grew up watching steam trains on the Fenchurch Street to Southend line. The clergy’s love of railways is not a new thing, he says.

“In Victorian times, clergy were often involved in persuading land­owners to allow rail routes through the land, and were instrumental in creating the railways. During speed trials, back in the 1930s, clergy were often found on the footplate.”

He has his own ideas about why trains appeal to the clergy. “Dis­counting a genetic theory, perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that parish life is not under your control. Things just happen, while trains and railways are something you can con­trol.”

Some clergy are able to combine their passion for the railway with their day-job by serving as railway chaplains, either ordained or lay. They offer support across the UK to all those who work in the industry, including drivers, guards, signalmen, engineers, and station cleaners.

A Baptist layman, Humphrey Gillott, is one of several chaplains at St Pancras International, and also serves in the East Midlands, covering an area that includes Wel­ling­borough, Kettering, Leicester, and Peterborough. He believes that, like him, many of the clergy will have been brought up in the age of steam, and “will have been schoolboy train­spotters before they had the call to go into the Church”.

Whatever the reason why so many of the clergy go weak at the knees at the shriek of a whistle, or the clickety-clack of wheels crossing points, there seems no danger that this passion will hit the buffers.

Steam Tracked Back: Trains in retro­spect 1967-60, by Richard In­wood and Mike Smith, will be pub­lished by Silver Link Publishing in the autumn.

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