Thursday, 14 December 2017

A religious upbringing?

Canadian rock legend Neil Young sold some of his extensive model railway collection this week: As a child, I would have been very envious of these, as I had a hand-me-down Hornby clockwork set to play with and, although there was lots of track, locomotives, coaches and wagons, there was little concession to reality and patience ran thin when derailments, and spectacular crashes, occurred so frequently.

My interest anyway was in the railways on which the models were based and I was fortunate in being brought up in Paignton during the 1950s and early 1960s, a time when full-sized trains played an important role in the life of the town. We were a family of five and all three brothers had an interest in trainspotting so, as the youngest, it was inevitable that I would follow suit and eventually be given an Ian Allan book to underline the numbers of locomotives I had seen. For me, it almost had the status of a religion and I could relate to the thrill of seeing all the different types more easily than I could to the excitement I was led to believe came from Bible stories. Of course, trains provided no promise of salvation, or any link to something supernatural, but they provided an introduction to steam locomotives with the names of castles, halls, granges and manors in shiny brass letters on their curved nameplates: places that seemed as exotic, and yet rather closer to home, than the various Biblical names I heard so frequently at Winner Street Baptist Church. Another difference between the two “religions” was that train worship was seasonal, with a concentration in July and August and it was Saturday, not Sunday, that required my attendance at the railway station early in the morning. My place was against the railings just visible in the far left of the contemporary photograph (above), taken in quieter times and there was nothing like summer Saturdays for rarities from distant parts. All manner of locomotives were pressed into service, including those designed for pulling freight trains.

So, why was Paignton such a mecca (if you will excuse an Islamic pun)? Something of the flavour of events is described by David St John Thomas and Simon Rocksborough Smith in their book Summer Saturdays in the West [1]:

The overnight trains always had a reputation for running late, and on the busiest Saturdays when many ran in several parts the average late arrival at..Paignton could be as much as two hours. If it was as bad as this, then engines and stock were often not available to start return trips from Paignton to London, the Midlands or North in time, and so delays spread. At times, almost a half of the incoming holidaymakers arrived in their resorts by breakfast time.. .. Of course, these masses of incoming visitors could not go to their hotels or camps until noon or even later and were this something of a liability to the resorts, swamping swimming pools and cafes (once a Paignton cafe sold 600 eggs at a Saturday breakfast time) and overfilling public shelters or just remaining on the station platforms when it was wet. Those who had not booked accommodation would form queues outside information bureaux before opening time..

..Once the overnight trains had passed through there would be a slight lull on the down line, filled in by a few strictly local trains for the large numbers of Taunton and Exeter people going to the sea on day trips..

I noticed the crowds streaming off the trains, of course, but they were of little importance to me compared to the busy work of the locomen, guards and station staff and the wondrous noises and smells from the locomotives. In the picture below (taken from Thomas and Smith’s book) you can see the crowds at Torquay (the next stop up the line) waiting for a train to Manchester, as a train for Leeds pulls out of the station. The same scene played out at Paignton, but departing trains never had the same interest, as their locomotives had already been seen on the way down. However, the crews needed to make a spirited getaway as the line quickly began a climb and there was much other activity as departing, and arriving trains, passed over a level crossing, with gates controlled manually from the signal box. All a whirl of activity, although my interest waned after a few years, as did the number of trains.

I don’t know whether my experiences on these summer Saturdays provide an example of the Jesuit maxim “Give me the child for his first seven years, and I’ll give you the man”, but I’ve retained my interest in railways, and in steam locomotives, having taken a locoman’s course (see below) and had the pleasure of riding on the footplate of a steam locomotive on more than one occasion (see below). In contrast, my interest in churchgoing – never strong – dwindled to nothing by the time I was 12 years old and I no longer attended at Winner Street. I realised then that my interest in Natural History was becoming absorbing and provided me with a sense of wonder that doesn’t need a theistic explanation. I'm afraid it is still like that.

[1] David St John Thomas and Simon Rocksborough Smith (1973) Summer Saturdays in the West. David & Charles, Newton Abbot.

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