Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford goes a-chuffing
I’m now going to share one of my private interests with you. It’s alright, it’s not shameful in any way although, it has to be admitted, some people will look on me with a mixture of pity and/or incomprehension.
People like me, who like the same things as me, have become a bit of a cliché for those weird people who don’t understand us and they give us strange titles: they call us ‘anoraks’ or ‘train-spotters’.
This is quite reasonable because a lot of people with my interests do actually wear anoraks when they go out to spot trains. However, that’s not a particularly accurate appellation in my case because: a) I don’t actually stand by railway lines and note the numbers of passing locomotives, and; b) I don’t have an anorak.
I’m not an extremist: I can’t shut my eyes and tell you what type of locomotive is approaching by the sound of its engine, I don’t pore through every ancient photograph counting the rivets in the boiler; I couldn’t tell you a Class 34 from a Class 43 without seeing the number on its side and I haven’t got a clue about relative tractive effort and tow-bar loadings. I never even wanted to be an engine-driver when I was a child.
I am, however, someone who loves railways – I have an OO-gauge model layout that, when the mood takes me, allows me to ‘play trains’, I do have a fair number of railway-related books on various shelves around the house (although many of them are quite dusty from being ignored over the last few years), and I enjoy visiting preserved railways to see the big beasts in action.
In fact I plan to do a fair bit of that this very summer, when I can tear myself away from Minster duties. In this part of the world we have two extremes – the North Yorkshire Moors Railway at Pickering that carries 350,000 passengers a year, and the Appleby Frodingham Railway which punts a dozen or so enthusiasts at a time around the Scunthorpe steelworks sidings – but there are dozens more to choose from all around Britain. I shall visit a few of them over the next few weeks – maybe even some in Wales.
While I do so I wouldn’t be surprised to bump into a few individuals who normally wear a dog-collar during the week. Keen observers of the human condition may have observed a high correlation between church officials and railway enthusiasts: indeed, in the Minster both the vicar and musical director share my interest in this area; and, by happy coincidence, 2011 looks like being a good year for us.
We are planning to have our own model railway in the north transept in early December to help promote the campaign to reopen the York –Beverley line, using models of both Minsters to bookend the layout. Then, on December 17 we expect to welcome 400 members of a rail tour who are travelling from London to experience a carol concert under our roof.
(As an aside – I suspect it’s not true that a disproportionate number of clergy etc are railway-ists although it’s certainly true that an unusually high number of the best model railways over the last 60 years were built by clergy. In addition two leading railway photographers were bishops and, of course, the creator of Thomas the Tank Engine was a vicar. It’s probably because they only work on Sundays so they’ve got plenty of time to perfect their art.)
Our musical director is undoubtedly inspired by the rhythm of the engines and wheels on tracks, but my own love affair is more complicated.
Perhaps it is because a smoothly-running railway is a perfect demonstration of humans working in cooperation to achieve something greater than themselves – just like John and I do as virgers in the Minster.
Perhaps it is because the sheer scale of the engines reminds me that there is something greater than us in the world. Perhaps the intricacies involved in trying to get the various locomotives, rolling stock, rail routes, points, signals and passengers all in the right place at the right time mirror those required by the virgers to get a church service set up, running smoothly and ending without apparent error.
Maybe, as far as the model railway is concerned, it is the way in which turning a small electrical transformer can make my miniature world run the way I want it to, in contrast to the out-of-control mess that is reality.
It’s even possible that my love affair dates back to happy childhood memories of hissing, leaking steam trains; filthy cigarette-stinking carriages; sticky chewing-gum infested carriage floors; inedible crispy and stale cheese sandwiches and rock-hard sausage rolls that combined with the unique excitement of going away on holiday to become an overwhelming pleasure.
Whatever the reason, this summer will find me happily indulging my love of the old four foot eight and I shall be as happy as a ballooning kitsch-garden-fetishist who has just crash-landed in the middle of the Ideal Gnome Exhibition.
Only more so.
It’s truly Heaven on Earth.