Monday, November 23, 2015

The Permanent Way (and the Truth and the Life?)

'The line to heaven by Christ was made,
With heavenly truth the Rails are laid,
From Earth to Heaven the line extends
To Life Eternal where it ends.'

On a tablet in the southern porch of Ely Cathedral is inscribed a poem called 'The Spiritual Railway', written in memory of William Pickering and Richard Edger, who lost their lives in a railway accident on Christmas Eve, 1845.  That year was only a decade and a half after the opening of the first modern railway between Liverpool and Manchester, but England had already gained two and a half thousand miles of track.  The 'Railway Mania' construction boom of the 1840s, gathering pace all the time, had reached Ely the previous July, when the Eastern Counties Railway opened the first route from London to Norwich.  The elegist saw a homiletic opportunity in the transport revolution, and the fruit of his labour has survived, even if, to us, it sometimes seems strained by his determination to make the analogy work and the verse scan:

'God's Word is the first Engineer
It points the way to Heaven so clear
Through tunnels dark and dreary here,
It does the way to Glory steer.'

This poem may sound ripe for a round of twenty-first century scoffing, and easy to dismiss as a rather contrived effort.  But the idea of a bond between religion and the railway is more compelling than it might seem.  For two bodies with such apparently different purposes there seem to be a surprising number of similarities, of all kinds, between them.  I find myself as determined as the poet to make something of it!

For instance, to set off along one track, there is the disproportion of railway enthusiasts among the clergy.  An obvious example is the Revd. W. V. Awdry, author of the 'Thomas the Tank Engine' books.  But there is also Eric TreacyBishop of Wakefield from 1968-1976 and a prolific railway photographer, who incidentally died at Appleby station on the famous Settle-Carlisle line, having gone to photograph a steam-hauled excursion.   Then there is the Revd. H. D. E. Rokeby's collection of photographs of British railway stations.  Others have noticed this phenomenon, especially with regard to model railways:  Paul Roberts, himself a 'Restless Rector' with a model railway in his garage, has written an interesting blog-post here, and there is an article by Christopher Howse here, which includes a reference to Canon Tony Chesterman's  ferroequinological reading of a verse from the prophet Isaiah: 'I saw the Lord… and His train filled the temple… and the temple was filled with smoke'...  

Both these authors consider the idea that the appeal to clergymen lies in order, without which no railway could be run properly.  One of Howse's sources makes a suggestion (upon which he actually ends up pouring cold water) that the clergy seek in the model railway an 'antidote to the often more nebulous realm of theology'.  The Restless Rector imagines that, for many, the antidote would be rather to the 'stress of parish life and... awkward people that one sometimes has to deal with'.  Railways appeal to him because of their 'order and communication', and he also wonders whether 'building and running a model railway [might reflect] something of the creativeness of God, and his fatherly care'.  A model railway is an ideal world, built on a blank slate, cut off from the world's chaos.  Even the real railway forms its own self-contained system, even its own world.  It is run from signalling centres as if its signals, track-circuits and points were isolated from the elements.  That world is broken into by trees falling onto the line and lorries colliding with bridges, but, still, there is a sense that the railways, needing a higher level of order than other transport systems, give themselves a better chance of running as they ought by sealing themselves off from the outside world and having as little as possible to do with it.

I would agree with both writers that order is indeed the main link between railways and churches, but would go further.  My contention is that, far from being an antidote to parish life and still less to theology, the appeal of the railway is that it actually resembles the church.   The order of a railway is a mirror of the divine order of the Church.  Naturally I am not suggesting that we should all go on pilgrimage to Clapham Junction, and will all reach Heaven by way of Kensal Green.  But it seems that a railway — precisely by being reasonably cut off from the world — can be seen as a kind of model or proto-Church, or in which ideas unappealing to modern man, such as assent to doctrine, or discipline, or self-sacrifice, can be shown to be necessary, rewarding and ennobling.  
'From Earth to Heaven the line extends...' 
This idea becomes especially interesting when compared with other forms of transport: for example, with the motorway.  It is not a coincidence that, in a secular, self-centred and ungentle culture, this should be the foremost means of national transport.  In both construction and operation, motorways permit us to languish in chaos, whereas railways impose an order on everyone who uses them.  Here is an example.  Victorian engineers had to thread their railways through difficult terrain, obliged to avoid too sharp a curvature in the track and gradients steeper than 1 in 100.  These rules made the work more difficult but the result more beautiful, just as the constraints of rhyme and metre, understood properly, make poetry ring with beauty, and just as there can be no tennis without a net.  Railways fit into the landscape; often they even embellish it, exactly as churches do.  But since motor-cars can deal more readily with gradients and curves than can trains, the builders of the motorways could be much freer.  They simply planted their highways virtually unrestrained across the countryside, or carved straight through the landscape, as at Stokenchurch in Buckinghamshire, and they threw up concrete flyovers wherever they pleased.  My perhaps rather controversial theory is that, just as railways fitted in perfectly with the Victorian revival of church architecture and indeed church-going, so do motorways with the profane self-indulgence of modern Britain.  It is not a coincidence that the Victorian age, for all its flaws, produced London's St. Pancras station, while the motorways have nothing to match (the sole exceptions, to my mind, being the Humber Bridge and first Severn Crossing).

I think the same pattern applies to the way each mode of transport works, too.  For instance, a railway journey explicitly requires discipline, and rewards it.  Between railway passengers there is an unspoken contract: without realising it, they all agree to turn up at a given place, at a given time, in order to travel together more efficiently and reduce each other's costs.  With this contract comes the risk of missing the train, as painful experience teaches us, but those who do catch it should enjoy relatively rapid, comfortable, spacious, relaxing and (importantly) safe transport.  Motorists face no such obligation and no such discipline.  No arrangement exists, even between those making similar journeys.  They have the freedom to set off whenever they like, with the result that a thousand individual cars, most containing only one or two people each, burn countless gallons of fuel in order to achieve the same result.  Moreover, the freedom of the motorway is selective.  The flexibility it offers the motorist comes at the cost of swathes of countryside, of further untold swathes of silence around it, the freedom of nearby residents to live in peace and quiet, the freedom to go freely across the land on foot, and so on.  Railways, by comparison, take up far less space and make far less noise.

Railways are formative; we are the better for them.  Passengers looking out at the landscape gain a geographical understanding of the journey.  They will pass the Chilterns, then Cannock Chase, then undulating Cheshire; they will see the Forest of Bowland to the east and Morecambe Bay to the west.  Their picture of the country will be built up by passing directly through its towns and cities: Peterborough, Grantham, Newark, Retford, Doncaster, York.  Road travel, however, is not really experienced as movement through a landscape that could be learned, recognised or loved.  It is not a journey but a process, and often a dull one at that.  Driver and passengers are strapped into their seats, and progress is less intuitively apparent, not sliding past sideways but flickering and enlarging in the windscreen.  Anonymous numbered junctions diverge and merge from left and right.  The landscape can barely be seen beyond the crash-barriers, the sheer breadth of the carriageway and the far rim of concrete.  It is possible to make a road journey without any reference to the points of the compass or any sensation of having travelled anywhere.  Motorways do not even fit the landscape.  The road-signs and furniture have no human scale.  No art there; only artifice.
A minor motorway sign is still perhaps eleven feet tall and wide: compare its scale to the footpath on the left!
Railways have dignity and majesty.  Whenever a train calls at a station, particularly on inter-city services, there is still ceremony and custom, even this long after the age of steam.  A familiar voice announces a platform, a litany of cities is read, the signal changes, the train draws solemnly in, passengers alight or board, the doors slam, the whistle is blown and the train heaves itself into motion again.  Procedures introduced solely for safety's sake take on the vestures of ritual. But roads have no time for ceremony; motorists are in no mood for custom.  Clutch in, accelerator down.

Railways leaven society.  Passengers on a railway journey often fall into conversation, discover common interests and keep common courtesy alive.  They are encouraged to have consideration for others in order to share a common space.  They must stand clear, move aside, open doors, lift down luggage, move down inside the carriage and mind the gap.  These are all things in which many people fail, but they are more likely to learn from these social encounters, in which people actually meet face-to-face, than they are on the road, where we are all shielded from each other by walls of metal which must be made ever thicker and Darwinian as the manners for which they are substitutes decline.  Cars offer us two temptations: to intoxicate ourselves with power and to blind ourselves to others.  So many people give into these temptations so habitually, and to the point of such callous selfishness, that a road journey in modern Britain is now nearly impossible without a near-accident.

I think my theory stands even in the realm of law and obedience.  Many motorists tend to react to the rules of the road by pushing them as far as they will go: speed limits are regarded as a target to be hit; vehicles push in without right of way; traffic lights are just squeezed past at amber.  The Highway Code becomes surprisingly elastic when there are a few extra seconds to gain: I think I will go so far as to say that this is moral relativism in full operation.  Meanwhile, safety on the railway is quite a different affair.  The rules are absolutes; nobody is above them.  Every action made by a modern train driver is recorded electronically and might be inspected at any point.  If the line speed (speed limit) is exceeded by even three miles an hour, a formal warning can be issued.  It must never be disobeyed.  A train must never enter a section of single track without a token.  A signal must never be passed at danger without permission.  Everything must be done to prevent any accident.  Many of these rules seem over-zealous and fussy at first, but there is often a death or serious injury behind them.  All railway staff have to do something that is very unfashionable these days: to profess their obedience to an authority higher than themselves.  The result, on British railways and elsewhere, has been an excellent safety record.
Lincoln Central station and 11th-century church of St Mary le Wigford.
My refrain, often repeated to long-suffering friends, is that rail travel is the most civilised means of transport known to man.   Railways have an improving and uplifting effect upon those who run them and use them, even on those most in need of redemption, such as London commuters.  But car culture seems to corrupt drivers by the tens of thousands.  And what better evidence of the fundamental benevolence of this invention of the railways than the instinctive delight taken by children — who have a perceptive, if imperfect, grasp of good and evil  in railways and the trains they carry, even the nondescript electric trains of suburban south London?  Children love railways; they do not love motorways.
Fundamentally benevolent?
Just as the railways dignify and uplift us, so does the Church.  Just as motorways wear us down with false freedom, so do many aspects of secular society.  The Church, like the railway, has its illogical aspects, and the failures of both are used by their opponents to call for their abolition in their entireties.  Motorways, like secular society, make too much sense: that is because they are seen only from one perspective, that of the self.  Motorways and secularism promise freedom at a low price, but turn out to deaden the spirit.  Railways and the Church ask for self-sacrifice, self-restraint and self-discipline, and give in return beauty, order, ceremony and majesty.  (The railway cannot quite manage the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body or the life everlasting, of course).

I don't know whether any of this enormous tract sounds at all convincing to any reader patient enough to have trawled through it...?  To me the comparison seems to work consistently enough for there to be something in it.  If nothing else, I can appeal to the story told by Michael Flanders about the lady who said, 'If God had intended us to fly, he would never have given us the railways'!  (If only she had made that remark in reaction to the development of motorways).  Incidentally, I do not really think that modern British car culture can easily be defeated, nor that the railways will again come to be seen as the country's principal means of transport, even though passenger numbers at the time of writing are at their highest for about fifty years.  Perhaps all that can be done is to persuade some poet to write a verse, entitled 'The Spiritual Motorway', describing souls hurtling around the M25 of secularism until they all end up snarled up in a traffic-jam?
Ely Cathedral, with station in the foreground, seen across the river Great Ouse. 


  1. Bravo, sir! What an excellent post. I agree with you about all of it, even if I'm not quite as much of a railway enthusiast as yourself. The observation about children's instinctive delight in the railways is especially inspired. The only thing I'm not convinced about is that so many vicars are railway-mad because of a love of order. It just seems to me you could make that explanation about almost anything-- order is a very broad term.

  2. Thank you for the kind comment! Yes, I suppose order is probably a broad term to use, not least since (now I think about it) so much of what we do on this earth is done for the sake of order. Perhaps, in fact, the appeal to clergymen is not dissimilar from the appeal to children?...

  3. Thank you for penning such a beautiful piece in praise of railways.
    Vicars staying at a nearby retreat are often drawn to my small project and I have fun sermonizing on the same theme until they've had enough. I often throw in: "C.of E. - that's a club, not a church."
    On much the same lines, I quote from an extended rant I made some years ago:
    "Such pride as there was in transport in the bad old days of the last century involved the individual fawning over his wretched motor car like it were some kind of tin god. The space within it, the space it occupied and even, with the introduction of alarms, the space around it, were jealously guarded. Journeys were made in isolation and the roads were cold, arid, brutal places where the delicate human virtues of courtesy and compassion were swamped in a mad scramble to be first, to be fastest, or to be best; where, in a fit of pique, men normally of kind, moderate disposition could fall into the devil's hands and could snuff out another's life for the sake of a few seconds saved from a journey time, or for some momentary advantage."
    "You were never so alone as when on the road, never so physically insecure. There was no sense of common purpose with those travelling in the same direction, no sense of wayfaring. You didn't see people, not even people you knew, because they were made anonymous - part of their machines. On foot you exchange a few words, or more, with a fellow traveller; gesture to a fellow cyclist; greet another rider. There is still no more friendly place than a railway carriage - although this can fairly be said of all public transport. People of all ages, all backgrounds, all tastes and persuasions come closely together, and, as they journey, they many talk and swap ideas, they may learn a little of each other's occupations and pastimes. In no other place have I engaged in conversation with such a wide variety of people. In straightforward human terms this must be beneficial. All forms of public transport are, in effect, civilizing."
    "Unlike the pretenders of old, the railway's interests do not offend the country which it exists to serve. The railway has matured into the texture of life as much as it has into the landscape. The railway is always near, but not so near that it invades people's lives; it provides transport cheap enough to boost local economies, but not so cheap as to see traffic set in motion simply because it is possible; it allows people to travel but does not create situations in which they are forced to. The railway allows colossal industries to run, sometimes with their products scarcely leaving the system; it gives a superior structure to the commercial life of the nation and is a kind of ballast to society. Railway is too small a word for it: it is a cultural institution; it is art and science combined; it is part of the very bedrock on which is built our civilization."
    The railway I was dreaming about is one rather more expansive than we have today.

    Colin Burges
    Christow Station

    1. Dear Colin,

      Thank you very much for your comment! I'm very glad you enjoyed the piece.

      Thank you too for quoting from your 'extended rant'; it sounds like a very fine rant! You make a lot of good points with which I heartily agree, for instance that 'the railway's interests do not offend the country which it exists to serve', and that it is 'art and science combined'. Even in their modern, truncated, plasticky form, I find the atmosphere of railways comforting and yes, civilising, just as you say. (An exception might be made at 8.30 a.m. at London Waterloo station, but perhaps that goes to support your point about an undue obligation to travel!).

      Railway enthusiasts and advocates like ourselves are often open to the charge of misty-eyed nostalgia, etc. etc. But, leaving aside the defence I would make of nostalgia for its own sake, I would say that we have a convincing case, rooted in reason and wisdom, and the evidence of our eyes and the plain fact of the destruction wrought by the roads since the 1950s. There's nothing inevitable about the rise of the motor-car and yes, I do think people worship their cars, even without realising it. Railways really are superior to roads except for the shortest distances, in both tangible and intangible ways.

      I could say an awful lot about the Beeching Axe and the deeds of Ernest Marples, but I really struggle to understand it as anything other than an act of colossal vandalism and spite from which we continue to suffer. I was born long after the axe had fallen, but people knew it at the time. These words of John Betjeman (in 1963) often come to mind:

      'You know, I'm not just being nostalgic and sentimental and unpractical about railways. Railways are bound to be used again. They're not a thing of the past. And it's heart-breaking to see them left to rot and to see the fine men who've served them all their lives made uncertain about their own futures and about their jobs. What's more, it's wrong in every way when we all of us know that road traffic is becoming increasingly hellish on this overcrowded island. [...] I think it's more than likely that we'll deeply regret the branch lines we've torn up and the lines that we've let to go to rot'.

      I think he has been entirely vindicated.


  4. Dear Dominic,

    I hope you don't mind my posting a link to your diary on my web pages.


    1. Dear Colin,

      Not at all! It is an honour to have my work linked to. Thank you very much. I am very glad you liked my piece — it is always a great encouragement when something I have written resonates with someone else.

      Your website looks thoroughly interesting — right up my street. A useful discovery for me.



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