Thursday 22 December 2016

Steaming into the Past - The Sherborne Christmas Carol

One of my favourite aspects of mainline steam-hauled trains is the incongruence that they bring to the present day. Not only are they incongruent to a present day railway scene dominated by modern sprinter, voyager and pendolino units, overhead wires and electronic arrivals/departures boards, but also to contemporary passenger habits, including using mobile devices to check trains times, for which passengers of the 19th and early 20th century would most likely have used Michael Portillo's favourite book - the Bradshaws.

Black Fives 44871 and 45407 at London Victoria
In many ways, mainline steam-hauled trains are like time machines that have travelled from the past. But as well as coming from the past, my latest mainline steam experience also took me into the past. Travelling on the Sherborne Christmas Carol, double-headed by former London Midland and Scottish Railway Class 5's (known to many rail enthusiasts as 'Black Fives') 44871 and 45407 The Lancashire Fusilier (named in preservation), what I felt was especially noticeable travelling behind a double header was that there seemed to be thicker clouds of smoke flying past the windows as the train gathered momentum. The late former Poet Laureate and lover of railway journeys Sir John Betjeman wrote extensively about how railways create their own landscapes. Watching the smoke shroud the nearby woodlands, in this way steam-hauled journeys also often create their own scenery.

The Parade, Sherborne
Passing through Worting Junction, well-known as a pivotal location during the holiday season on the Southern Railway where holiday season specials either went across the bridge in the direction of Southampton or under the bridge along the former Atlantic Coast Express route to North Cornwall, the train stopped to take on water at Salisbury before heading onto Sherborne. Whereas it felt that the train had come from the past to the present, Sherborne's medieval architecture made it feel like the train had taken me into the past. As described by Thomas Hardy in his novel The Woodlanders*, it is as if some medieval stone masons had been flashed down through the centuries.

Tombs of Aethelbald and Ethelbert, Sherborne Abbey
Dominated by its abbey, Sherborne is said to be where Alfred the Great was educated. Though much of Sherborne Abbey that is seen today dates mainly from the 15th century, there is still some evidence of Norman and Saxon architecture. The abbey's north choir aisle contains two tombs that are said to be those of King Aethelbald of Wessex and King Ethelbert of Wessex, elder brothers of Alfred. History perhaps best remembers Alfred as the only English King to defeat the Vikings and burning cakes, but also had a vision of a new kind of kingdom for his time based on his love of reading. According to history, Alfred learned to read from his mother Osburh with his brothers, who read a book brightly illuminated by monks. Osburh said that whoever learned to read the quickest could have the book. The visual appeal of the illumination encouraged Alfred to learn and the book became his, though historians now think that rather than being able to read fluently, he was able to memorise the texts so well. Believing that without learning and Christian wisdom there could be no peace and prosperity, Alfred proposed to make works of literature, including holy texts, accessible to his subjects by translating them from Latin to Anglo-Saxon, over 500 years before the Protestant Reformation.

Ladybird Books' title Alfred the Great,
first published in 1956
This led me on personal trip down memory lane to a formula that was part of my childhood, and of many other British childhoods, Ladybird Books. Memories of Ladybird childhoods may well have been aroused recently through the presence of parody Ladybird titles on the shelves of WH Smiths satirising what the generation that read the originals feel they may since have been through (a midlife crisis) or have become (a hipster). For me though, growing up, Ladybird Books provided me with a beautifully illustrated window to learning, which suited my visual ways of thinking as a child with Asperger's Syndrome (then undiagnosed). Written in a simple language that could easily be understood by children, they were accompanied with beautiful illustrations, of which Sherborne's picturesque streets could well have adorned. I remember being attracted to the illustrations in Ladybird Books on many different subjects that arouse childhood fascinations including animals, historical figures, transport etc. but to understand what was happening in the illustrations, I learned to realise that I also needed to pay attention to the written text, which encouraged me to read and later explore further, something which many of us take into later life with us, including myself. Over a hundred years since the first book published by Ladybird Books, one can only wonder how many lifelong pursuits of learning and exploration began with them.

Reading about Alfred the Great with Ladybird Books, I also learned about the burh (later called boroughs) system Alfred developed to help defend his kingdom from possible future attacks. Alfred's burh system help to connect towns via fortified roads and bridges (in some cases reusing existing Roman roads), which as well as for defence purposes, also enabled a network of commerce. It is possible that without Alfred's translation programme and development of the burh system, subsequent events that I also learned about through Ladybird Books like the Industrial Revolution and with that, the coming of the railways, both of great importance to shaping the present day society we live in, might not have happened. In Alfred's time, most people rarely travelled much further than the village or settlement the lived in. Often it would take days to travel distances by horse or on foot that, in contemporary times, can be done in a few hours by train, bus or plane. The idea of inter-connection through the burh system would later enable future generations to travel beyond where, at one time, their 'world' would have stopped in a much more accessible, affordable and quicker way when the appropriate technology, railways and later motor vehicles, to make this possible arrived.

Sherborne Abbey
A special carols service was held at the abbey for passengers and staff of the Sherborne Christmas Carol. Travelling back to London Victoria, while Christmas tree lights from nearby houses shone through the clouds of smoke Black Fives 44871 and 45407 performed their own Christmas carol - 'Chuffing Home for Christmas'.

Wishing all readers a very happy and peaceful Christmas and all the best for the New Year.

*In Thomas Hardy's Wessex, Sherborne is named 'Sherton Abbas'

Special thanks to the Railway Touring Company for a fantastic day out.