Could there be anything closer to paradise on earth? Long shafts of late afternoon sun were streaming through the west windows of Quarr Abbey as I awaited the start of Vespers, setting aglow the distinctive orange brickwork of Dom Paul Bellot’s great Grade One listed masterpiece in the Isle of Wight. Outside the orchards were laden with fruit, birds sang sweetly and rare red squirrels played on lawns that led gently down to the bluest of seas.
Soon the abbey church would resound to the exquisite Gregorian chant for which it is famous. Yet for one of the fathers, despite spending the best part of a lifetime in this Eden, there was something missing that rendered his life incomplete. “You see,” he told me poignantly, “I should really have loved to have travelled behind one of the old steam engines on the preserved railway just across the way. But the truth is that I’ve never had the money. And since we Benedictines are dedicated to a life of poverty here, it’s unlikely I ever will.”
I was staying at Quarr while visiting the Isle of Wight Steam Railway as part of a year-long odyssey around the byways of the British railway system to mark the forthcoming 50-year anniversary of the Beeching report, talking to people in local communities and getting a sense of how life has changed since the early 1960s. Though the much-demonised former British Railways chairman shut down thousands of miles of track, many of the most beautiful and historic railway lines survived the axe and are now experiencing a resurrection of their own. My encounter with the Quarr fathers wasn’t the only reminder of a curious affinity between religion and railways. In many local communities it was the clergy who have been champions of lines under threat. Think of the celebrated Ealing comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt. Here it was the Vicar of Titfield, with his chum Ollie Matthews, “Bishop of Welchester” as fireman, who drove the train that finally saw off the evil bus operators who were trying to put the line out of business.
Far–fetched? In his book Farewell to Steam, Canon Roger Lloyd of Winchester Cathedral, wrote: “It is common knowledge that many hundreds of clergymen are enthralled by everything that has to do with railways”. Among the most celebrated was the Rt Rev Eric Treacy, Bishop of Wakefield, known as the “Railway Bishop”, who was one of the most fervent supporters of the magnificent Settle and Carlisle line and a prime mover in the campaign to save it from closure. It was on one of its station platforms in 1978 that he died of a heart attack while waiting to photograph a train pulled by Evening Star, the last steam locomotive built by British Railways. (Bishop Treacy was as expert a railway photographer as he was in the liturgy.) There is a little shrine to him in the spotless station booking office at Appleby, beneath a locomotive nameplate bearing his name. “Lots of people still come here to pay their respects,” the stationmistress, Anne Ridley, told me when I visited.
Another railway clergyman omnipresent on my travels was the Rev Wilbert Awdry. Although the author of Thomas the Tank Engine set most of his adventures in the fictional island of Sodor, he also made thinly disguised forays onto the real railway system, setting stories on the preserved Bluebell Railway and the narrow gauge lines of Wales. I travelled in his tracks on the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway in Cumbria, immortalised in his tale Small Railway Engines. Railway there told me that Awdry came on holiday holidays on the narrow gauge railway with his chum, the Rev Teddy Boston, Rector of Cadeby in Leicestershire, and they nicknamed themselves “The Fat Controller” and “The Thin Controller”.
The Rev Teddy was an even more passionate train fanatic than his friend Wilbert, building a 2ft-gauge railway in his garden at home in All Saints rectory, where he would often take the regulator of his engine Pixie to give rides to his parishioners. The train-mad cleric entitled his autobiography From Font to Footplate, and the railway continued to operate after his death, with his widow at the controls until five years ago, raising funds for the parish.
There are countless others of all Christian denominations – and in rectories, vicarages and manses all over Britain there are bookshelves devoted to tomes on railways. One current senior Catholic bishop is said to be privately passionate about trains. The great William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during the second world war, reputedly memorised large sections of Bradshaw’s railway timetable by heart. Canon Victor Whitechurch of Christ Church, Oxford, was the creator of the vegetarian railway detective, Thorpe Hazell. The Rev Edward Beal was the “father” of the 00-scale model railway, popular with millions across the world.
Curiously, three of the greatest steam locomotive designers were the sons of clergymen – Sir Vincent Raven, of the North Eastern Railway, Sir Nigel Gresley, who built the world steam record holder, Mallard, and Arthur Peppercorn, whose A1 Class masterpiece Tornado has just been recreated after public fundraising of £3m and is thrilling younger generations who come out to watch it race along the main lines of Britain.
How to make sense of it all? Canon Lloyd asserted in his book The Fascination of Railways that there is “a general kinship between the religious view of life and the general railway scene” – a view shared by the eminent publisher Gilbert Thomas, who wrote: “I never remain long at any great railway centre before interest in the railway itself turns to reverie, and reverie a little later to positive meditation. Nor is this strange, because with a vision of God must go a vision of humanity; and where better can we catch this latter vision than in a railway station, with multifarious types and needs passing vividly before our eyes.”
This may well have been in the minds of the great Victorian railway architects in creating their mighty “cathedrals of steam”. At St Pancras, now magnificently restored as possibly the world’s most splendid railway terminus, its creator, the High Churchman Sir Gilbert Scott, built his masterpiece in the Gothic manner because he believed this was the “only true Christian style”. Even more ecclesiastical in appearance is Liverpool Street, with its light-filled vista of columns and iron roofs. As Sir John Betjeman (another prosetylser of both religion and railways) commented: “The Great Eastern wanted their train shed to be cathedral-like as well as the buildings, and the effect is indeed cathedral-like.” Not should we forget Isambard Kingdom Brunel who conceived Paddington station as “a cathedral in a cutting” with a triple roof of wrought iron and glass, replicating a nave and two aisles – not to mention his other famous design, Bristol Temple Meads, which one writer described as a religious experience – “eternity fashioned through the traffic of time”.
Not surprisingly, many enthusiasts maintain that the initials GWR stand, not for the Great Western Railway, but for “God’s Wonderful Railway”.
But maybe there is a simpler explanation altogether. A couple of years ago, the Rev Tony Willcox of Heacham, Norfolk wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph offering a theory as to why railways and religion are so intimately associated. He quoted Canon Tony Chesterman of Derby Cathedral: “The ultimate answer is to be found in scripture: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne… and his train filled the Temple… and the Temple was filled with smoke” (Isaiah 6).
(On the Slow Train: Twelve Great British Railway Journeys, by Michael Williams, is published this month [April] by Preface Publishing, price £14.99)