I AM in a railway signal box: the old-fashioned kind, with levers and bells and polished brasses. I am not actually the signalman: I get the impression that I am here in some sort of training capacity. The signalman on duty is elderly, and has thinning grey hair and deep creases round his eyes — the result, I assume, of a lifetime spent peering down the track after trains.
There are no trains about at the moment, though. The signal box is peaceful. There is a cat asleep in the signalman’s chair, and a handful of change on the little table next to it. There is also a brown cardboard box on the table, which the signalman is opening with his pocket knife. When he finally gets the thing undone, he grunts and turns to me.
“There we are,” he says. “Take your pick.”
The box is full of sets of rosary beads. Dozens of them. Some made of string and wood, some of silver and diamonds. The signalman shoves the box towards me.
“Go on, take your pick. You can have whichever you want.”
His accent is thick. I can’t place it, except that it is rural.
“Thank you very much, but I don’t want them.”
“I don’t think that I’ll use them.”
The signalman snorts, dismissively.
“You’ll use them when you’re a priest.”
Now I am uneasy. I know with the absolute clarity that I experience only in dreams that I do not want to be a priest, but I have a feeling that the signalman is quite a forceful character who will not easily take no for an answer. I do not want to be rude, but I do not want to accept a rosary, either. To do so would leave me obliged to him in some way, and I definitely don’t want that. I am struggling to formulate a diplomatic reply when, thankfully, I wake up.
I fumble for my phone. It is a quarter to nine, which means that I must have forgotten to set an alarm. I am going to miss my train.
I AM making my annual pilgrimage to Walsingham, and this year I am going by train. Christmas has always struck me as a railway time of year. Network Rail estimates that 2.2 million people use trains between Christmas and New Year.
Pop songs celebrate journeys home: people travelling hundreds of miles to be with loved ones — or 2000 miles, in the case of the Pretenders. There is a romance, a magic, to trains at Christmastime. The opening scene of The Box of Delights, based on the John Masefield novel, showed the schoolboy Kay Harker travelling home for Christmas along the Severn Valley Railway.
My own train is 13 minutes late. We leave Peterborough at 11.54 a.m., and are soon speeding past huge and disconcertingly flat fields full of brown tangled crops that look as if they have been abandoned by their farmers to shrivel under the wide, soggy sky. Small groups of red-brick houses cluster around level crossings, and a couple of scrappy looking branch lines leave the main. Eventually, the signals change from the modern traffic-light variety to the old semaphore ones. I have the feeling of slipping gently to the edge of things.
We pass an old-fashioned signal box, and then another, and I reconsider my dream. It has left me vaguely anxious. Because of my own background and my bonkers CV, I really want there to be connections between the railway and Christianity, at least a bit, but I am not sure that there are.
THERE is the Revd W. Awdry, of course, the author of the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, and also the Rt Rev Eric Treacy, the train-spotting Bishop of Wakefield, who collapsed and died on Appleby Station while waiting to photograph the BR 92220 Evening Star.
THOMAS WARDPast and present: Thomas Ward at work in a signal box
Beyond that, however, there is not much to go on. The railway and the Church actually got off to a bad start. Pope Gregory XVI prohibited rail transport within the Vatican, and said of the railway “Chemin de fer, chemin d’enfer” (”Road of iron, road of hell”).
Wikipedia states that he hated the railway because he thought it would increase the power of the liberalising bourgeoisie, but I have always wondered whether it wasn’t because the new trains threatened Christianity’s monopoly on defining time. Since the Middle Ages, the Church had been unchallenged in marking the days and years in its round of prayer, and in the colourful passing of the liturgical seasons. Church time was a spiral, circling upwards and upwards to the bright pinprick of eternity, but the railway arrived with its timetables and connections, and turned time into something grey and linear and earthbound.
There must be a huge gap between a monk’s awareness of time’s passing as he shuffles off to vespers in answer to the monastery bell and that of a signalman checking the times of his trains on his signal-box chart. No wonder the Pope was worried.
IF AWDRY knew about Gregory XVI’s concerns, however, he did not share them. He was happy that his Christian vocation and railway passion overlapped. “Both had their heyday in the mid-19th century,” he wrote, “both own a great deal of Gothic-style architecture which is expensive to maintain; both are regularly assailed by critics; and both are firmly convinced that they are the best means of getting man to his ultimate destination.”
I wonder whether a certain type of priest loves the railway simply out of nostalgia for a gentler England of parsons and branch lines, before Beeching and secularisation came along at roughly the same time and ruined it all. The idea is not as silly as it sounds. Many of the beautiful railway posters from the 1930s have pictures of churches in them, nestling in the rolling hills promised to the traveller looking out from the carriage windows.
And there is Betjeman, of course. He loved the railway with the same fiercely combative nostalgia as he loved the Church of England; enough for there to be a statue of him clutching his hat in the restored St Pancras. When his subalterns were not strategically losing tennis matches to their sweethearts, it is easy to imagine them attending parish evensong or riding on quaintly slow trains through the Home Counties.
THE train has made up time by Ely; so I easily make my connection. I get another train to King’s Lynn, and then board a bus to Wells. From there, I will take a train on the small heritage railway that runs to Walsingham.
The woman sitting next to me turns to me as the bus leaves King’s Lynn. “Where are you going then, doll?”
“Ah, the Jesus place.”
The woman nods knowingly. “What do you wanna go there for?”
“A sort of pilgrimage. To get ready for Christmas.”
“Yeah, but why?”
“I used to be a monk, and places like Walsingham still have a residual attraction for me.”
I’m not sure that she does. I’m not sure that I do, really. “I don’t know why they do, but they do.”
The woman nods again, and picks up her phone.
AT WELLS, there is a short track ahead of me, leading to a few sheds and a low platform running next to a narrow-gauge railway line. A converted signal box, much too large for the dinky tracks, is now a shop, and there is a huge and very ragged Union flag flapping, incongruously, above the scene. As I approach, a middle-aged man wanders down the platform to meet me, and informs me that I have missed the last train to Walsingham.
I walk back to the main road, and head towards the town centre. After a hundred yards, there is a sharp turning to the left which is signposted for Walsingham. On impulse, I take it. Suddenly, now that my train plan is knackered, I want to arrive in Walsingham on foot, like a pilgrim of old.
AFTER ten minutes’ walking, my feet hurt, and I decide that I am sick of being a pilgrim of old; so I stick my thumb out at passing cars. The third one stops, and an old man leans across the passenger seat and winds his window down.
THOMAS WARDA former calling: Thomas Ward, as a novice monk, with his niece
“Where are you off to?”
“Hop in, then.”
The man clears old food wrappers and a fistful of change off the front seat, and I clamber in. It is the smelliest, dirtiest car that I have ever been in, but I don’t care. I just want to get to my hotel room and put my feet up. Also, I have a strange feeling that I have seen the old man before somewhere, ages ago. I have no idea where.
“Going to the shrine, then, are you?”
“Where’ve you come from?”
“Today, I’ve come from Peterborough, but I actually live in West Yorkshire, near Leeds.”
We lapse into silence while the man drives incredibly slowly along the winding lane. A snake of cars builds up behind us. I feel that I should say something. The man has given me a lift, after all. The least I can do is make conversation.
“I was planning to get the little steam train to Walsingham. But I’ve missed the last one. I’m interested in the connections between railways and Christianity, you see, and I thought that a Christmas train journey to Walsingham would be an interesting metaphor or something.”
The man frowns and nods as if I have just said something sensible.
“You might want to look up Harold Davidson, then, our old Vicar of Stiffkey,” he says after a moment. “He was a bit of a railway man. He always used to leave quickly at the end of his services so that he could get the train up to London and help out the young ladies who had got themselves into difficulty. They called him the ‘Prostitutes’ Padre’. He got defrocked in the end.”
“Do you think he was more interested in the women or the trains?”
The man chuckles.
“Bit of both, I expect.”
THE man looks thoughtful, as if he is trying to remember something else. And then I know whom he reminds me of: the signalman from this morning’s dream. He is not an exact lookalike, but the lined face and the thinning hair are similar, and the accent is close. And there was the pile of change on the passenger seat when I climbed into the car. The signalman had change on his table, too.
“There’s something else you should know,” the man says slowly.
This no longer feels like a chance encounter. There is an earthy, unhurried wisdom about the old man, just as there was about this morning’s signalman. I am about to learn something significant about the connections between the railway and Christianity, and so about the only two consistent things in my life. It doesn’t matter that I got up late and missed the Walsingham steam train. The whole trip has been bracketed by some wise and mysterious synchronicity.
“What’s that?” I say again.
“This Davidson — he was mauled to death by a lion in Skegness.”
“Oh,” I say. “I’ll look him up.”
The next morning, while I am lounging in my bed in my room at the Black Lion, I Google “Vicar Norfolk prostitutes trains lion” and read Davidson’s story on my phone. It is almost exactly as the old man reported it. Davidson spent most of his time in London ministering to prostitutes and down-and-outs, angering his bishop and the gentry of his neglected Norfolk parish. He was eventually found guilty by a consistory court of five counts of immorality, and was defrocked — after which he earned his living as a seaside entertainer.
He met his death at the paws of a lion, Freddy, in Skegness, in 1937. The Wikipedia article mentions railways only in passing: sometimes, Davidson would apparently miss his train back to his parish after a week in London, irritating his parishioners more than ever.
AFTER breakfast, I set out on a tour of the Walsingham chapels. I have always loved it here. The camp chaos of the Anglican shrine, the calmness of the Roman Catholic parish church, and the stillness of the Slipper Chapel work their magic, and gradually the silliness of yesterday’s journey slips away. Finally, I wander up the lane to the Orthodox church. A sign outside the building reads: “St Seraphim’s Chapel, Icon and Railway Heritage Museum”.
The chapel is a converted railway station, although you wouldn’t know it now: it has an onion dome and a three-bar cross above the door. I shuffle inside and light a candle, and settle down at the back of the deserted church.
THOMAS WARDSanctuary: the converted railway station chapel, at Walsingham
Orthodox churches tend to be darker than RC or Protestant ones (this one is no exception), and the icons feel more mysterious than Western religious pictures or statues. I have often thought that this reflects Orthodox theology: the Eastern Church has defined less stuff in less detail than the West, and there is not the same natural-theology tradition in Orthodoxy, teaching that God can be apprehended — to a certain extent at least — by unaided human reason.
Maybe that is why, since I left my Roman Catholic monastery ten years ago, I have felt more comfortable in Orthodox churches than anywhere else. My problem as a Roman Catholic was that I could not stop my rational side drifting into agnosticism, while my imaginative and emotional side remained stubbornly attached to the stories and ceremonies of Christ and his Church.
Eventually, the tension became too much. Perhaps Orthodoxy lets me off the hook a bit, demanding less rationality and more silence.
IT IS not much of an insight, but, as I sit in the pious gloom, it leads to another: perhaps clergy are drawn to railways not because religion and trains have things in common, but precisely because they don’t. Perhaps some vicars like railways because the timetables and regulations provide something clear and rational and non-negotiable to assent to, in a way that thoughtful religion does not. After all, it always seems to be Anglican priests who get interested in trains, not conservative Catholic priests or fundamentalist Baptist pastors.
When I left the monastery, I got a job as a railway signaller. It was an unplanned, desperate career change, but I discovered that I loved studying the railway rule-book at the training school. The absolute clarity of the regulations for dealing with points failures, or leaves on the line, came as a massive relief after months and years fretting over how indulgences actually worked, or what really happened at the Exodus, or what it means to speak about Original Sin after Darwin.
I remember that I was delighted when we were taught that railway lines were exactly four feet eight-and-a-half inches apart everywhere on the British rail network. To everyone else in my class, this was blindingly obvious — if the tracks were not of a standard gauge, the trains would fall off — but, to me, after years as a monk, the utter consistency of it was deeply satisfying.
I know that many religious people manage to hold their rational selves and their imaginative, believing selves in creative tension in their religious lives, but I have never learnt the knack. Emotionally and imaginatively, I am still just about a Christian; but, rationally, I am an agnostic with a need for consistent, straight-line truth. Maybe train-enthusiast clergy have not learnt the knack, either; maybe they turn to the straight lines of the railway for some relief from the difficult, crooked lines of faith.
Better the railway, I suppose, than disgruntled lions.
I say my morning prayers quickly in the little chapel that was once a train station, and then wander out into the sunshine and swap my prayer book for my railway timetable. The next train to Wells leaves at 12.45. I have exactly 21-and-a-half minutes to collect my bag and find the station.
I don’t feel Christmassy, exactly, but I do feel peaceful.
Thomas Ward trains signallers for Network Rail.