been two themes which have heavily influenced my life - music and
railways. How have these come about and how have they formed or moulded
me? This merely shows how I developed parallel, but not necessarily linked, interests
I was born in Orpington on the outskirts of London during the second world war. Our main entertainment was the BBC radio. I was an avid listener of Children’s Hour on the Home service between 5 and 6 o’clock. As well as Larry the Lamb there were two programmes that I enjoyed.
A Music Programme with Helen Henschel (?) This was introduced by a piano version of the theme from the fourth movement of Brahms First Symphony.
Fra the Phoenician which was introduced by the Pieds en l’Air from Peter Warlock’s Capriol suite.
These two pieces have remained with me ever since, although it was only many years later that I was able to identify them.
My First Visit to a Steam Locomotive
I was traveling with my parents probably to Hastings. I don’t know when, possibly in the late 1940s, but it was before my trainspotter days and I was in short pants. It was a dark, dry, night and not particularly warm. We had come to Ashford where there was a lengthy station stop, possibly to take water.
Dad gave me permission to go and take a look at the engine. I
went alone but I suspect he kept an eye on me from the open car
door. As far as steam locomotives go the L class was quite small but
to a young impressionable child it appeared gigantic and it towered above
me. The driver smiled at me from his perch way above
me. I shouted out:
“Can I come up please?”
I was scared stiff. In my heart of hearts I really wanted him
to say no. At least I would have asked and honor would have been
satisfied. However, he opened the door and smiled “Come on then”.
It was a very difficult climb up for a small, scared,
boy. The fireman had just finished hosing down the wooden cab floor
and wisps of steam were rising slowly from the hot boards, swirling around
until they were sucked into the fire through the gaps in the firehole
doors. The only illumination in the dark cab was the shafts of light
from the fire. There was a smell of hot oil and coal in the steamy
atmosphere. My bare knees were getting hot and I backed up to the
cab side to be as far away from the fire as possible. The fireman
opened the firedoors and beckoned me over to take a look in. The
light from the fire was blinding. I cautiously approached the
raging furnace and peered in timidly. He demonstrated his
skill by throwing in a couple of shovelsful of coal adding to the din in the cab. Sight,
sound, smell and touch – I was experiencing this machine with all my
I had now had about as much as I could handle so I thanked them and made
a hasty exit. Getting down was probably more difficult than climbing
up but I distinctly remember looking to my right and seeing the number 31777
painted on the cab side. I ran back to our car (coach) and climbed in where Mum
cleaned the dirt off my hands and knees. Her father had been an
engineer (driver) on this line so she understood.
This brief cab (footplate) visit has remained indelibly etched in my memory. It was the start of a wonderful roller coaster career which has always involved railways in some way, shape or form. It has been great fun and I am looking forward to more. However, it all started with a visit to 31777.
Photo by A.W. Burges, location and date unknown
Primary School Days
I went to Chistlehurst Road Primary School. I made many friends among my class mates although some smelt a bit.
A couple of primary school friends introduced me to trainspotting and I took to going up to Orpington station in the evening to watch the local goods train shunting wagons in the yard. The first locomotive I saw was 31061, a C class 0-6-0 tender engine from Hither Green. It was duly noted in my Ian Allan ABC Southern Region. We watched from a pedestrian over bridge on the Petts Wood side of the station which we called steppers because of the many steps up the bank on one side. I was allowed to stay out until the Golden Arrow came through, often pulled by 70004 “William Shakespeare”. We frequently hoped it would be late so we could stay up later but this very rarely happened. During the day we would look out for the “ten to twelve goods” a down goods on the slow line hauled by a Hither Green N class 2-6-0.
31061 at Eastleigh in August 1961, presumably waiting to be scrapped. Photo by Ron Taylor.
I must have been about 8 or 9 when Jack Champion, a neighbour, loaned me a 10 inch record of Haydn’s Oxford Symphony (No. 92). I was enthralled, particularly the first movement which seemed very complex but which came together perfectly.
I was given a recording of Handel’s Messiah. (Sir Malcolm Sargent, Elsie Morrison, Huddersfield Choral Society, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra). It
was on 78 rpm records – eighteen of them (36
sides). My record player could only play eight at a time. This music
has stayed with me, particularly the Halleluja Chorus, always an
emotional event at a live performance when the audience stands en masse.
The only means I had of hearing other music was BBC radio which meant that I had to scour the Radio Times each week and make a note of the broadcasts. The first time I heard Beethoven’s 3rd piano concerto occurred on my eleventh birthday. My party was all ready but I delayed the start so that I could hear all of this wonderful music which would crop up from time to time during my life.
I won a scholarship to Eltham College. It is difficult to set out my feelings. My primary school friends all played football at the local grammar school. However, I went to a rugby school. The result was that I lost all my early friends bar one. I obtained an excellent education but, with my lower class background, I never felt I fitted in and this created insoluble problems in my family relations. This feeling of not fitting in has stayed with me throughout my life. In many ways this is a good thing because I have had to rely upon myself rather than do what others think.
One of my greatest memories from school days is the morning assemblies in the school chapel. We would file in to our assigned locations which were set out by form. The lowest forms being at the low levels. After the hymn and the announcements we would file out by form – the highest going first. In this time Mr. Davies, the Music Master, would play Bach on the organ. It was wonderful. As I progressed through the forms my place in the chapel went up until finally I was one of the first to leave, I hated having to leave early and miss this wonderful music.
Bach Organ Music too numerous so I will just show some BWV numbers 540, 542, 564, 565, 582
I was particularly struck with BWV 564, the toccata, adagio and fugue in C major. The fugue carries the music higher and higher into the roof where it explodes and the notes come fluttering down like snow around the listener to the floor.
The school music club was great and I particularly remember sitting around a small gramophone listening to
My mother took me to a Carol concert at Lewisham Town Hall. Ralph Vaughan Williams was in the audience.
I saved up my pocket money and bought two 45 rpm discs
I took a short works course on
British Railways in September 1959. we stayed at Whitley Bay. This gave
me an early understanding of railways from the inside. Further details
can be found at https://churcher.crcml.org/Diary/Diary_1959-09.html
My first footplate ride (apart from along the platform at Dunton Green) was on 1 August 1960. https://churcher.crcml.org/Diary/Diary_1960-08.html#hawkhurst.
At this time I started to cycle down to
the Lullingstone Roman Villa where I did some excavation work under the
supervision of Lt-Colonel Meates. One day at lunch time, with John
Palmer, I cycled to the Malt Shovel at Eynsford where we had our meal
listening to a programme on the radio. I will never forget hearing Beethoven's third piano concerto.
I had already heard it many times but this was when I identified the
magic moment where the cadenza merged back to the orchestra at the end
of the first movement. On 3 December 2022 I visited the Malt Shovel
with Paul and the family. This brought back many memories. https://colinchurcher2020.blogspot.com/2022/12/day-15-family-business-borough-green.html
David Rhys-Tyler arranged for a trip to
hear a Promenade Concert in the Royal Alvert Hall. We had seat in a
box.This was the first time I had heard the Brahms Violin Concerto. I quickly found the cash to buy a recording.
In 1960 left Eltham College to do a degree in Political Economy at Reading University. I was in lodgings for the entire time, I preferred this to living in a hall. Reading Station was a favourite place to visit, particularly on Saturdays while cycling down to the Western region engine sheds was a favourite passtime.
The Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were very popular - Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, The Yeoman of the Guard, The Mikado.
It was during
the first two summer vacations from university that I worked on steam
locomotives, first at Shoeburyness and then at Reading. This gave me a
very different perspective of railway work. On Wednesday 21
November I rode the footplate of a Castle from Reading to Worcester and back.
I went out on "Swindon" the last Castle to be built but came back on
"Sir Edward Elgar" - and this in quintessentially Edward Elgar country.
Other railway highlights of this period
Riding the headend of a large freight train on the Great Northern Railroad, Wenatchee, Wash. USA
career on British Railways was relatively short. I did two years
Management Training, followed by a stint as Assistant Station Manager,
Reading, then a year in Cardiff followed by a few months as Area
Manager West Wales. While working in Cardiff I was living in Cwmbran.
Walking in the fields I enjoyed watching the birds particuolarly the
larks flying high.
Railway highlights of this period
We arrived in Canada in July 1968, I had a job with the Canadian Transport Commission all lined up. One of the early disappointments was that the CBC radio was infinitely inferior to the BBC so far as my kind of music was concerned. This was soon outclassed by the readily available recordings, first in vinyl and later on with CDs. This enabled me to widen my interest of the music I knew I would love:
All the Beethoven symphonies
I commenced work in regulation with the CTC, followed by policy in Transport Canada. I gained a first rate understanding of the prairie grain transport situation when I acquired a large part of the government hopper cars (Trudeau hoppers) as well as negotiating a railway rehabilitation program which eventually lasted over ten years and cost over a billion dollars. In 1986 I started writing a Railway Safety Act which came into force in 1989 and I stayed with railway safety until retirement in 1997. During this time I travelled over much of the Canadian network and sampled railways, some work and some pleasure, in the USA, France, UK, China, Sweden, Australia, Ecuador and Zimbabwe.
Railway highlights in this period
Riding the cab of the French TVG at 300 kmph
A special train put on for me at El Maiten. I was asked where I wanted to ride. I chose the fireman's seat
has been a lot of fun. I did some volunteer projects in Bolivia, Chile,
Panama and Jamaica. As well as studying, in detail, the history of the
railways in the Ottawa area.
On a trip to Italy we were lucky enough to score front row tickets for a performance of Rossini's "Rossini's
Mary and I met John Palmer and his wife at Abergavenny and drove to Crickhowell. A short walk across the river and we found ourselves ar St. Catwg's church where there was a funeral service. The congregation was singing Calon Lān.
Mary and I spend some thirteen consecutive Christmas holidays in Paris. One year we attended a performance of the Messiah in La Madeleine, Napoleon's enormous church built to celebrate his victories in the Mediterranean. At the Hallelujah Choris Mary and I were practically the only ones to stand. The conductor turned around, stopped the music, then ordered the crowd to stand."Mais , c'est la loi, tout le monde doit rester debout." At the end this was the only time I have been to the Messiah when there was an encore. It was of course the Hallelujah Chorus.
What have I been doing music-wise? Mostly enjoying music with which I am already familiar. Much of it I can play in my head. Railways and music. Music and railways.
Vaughan Williams put the poem Linden Lea to music
Within the woodlands, flow’ry gladed,
Music and railways have guided me in the search for my Linden Lea
The overture to Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" has
always been a favourite. This is my cellphone ring tone and
occasionally I will delay answering a call because I love the music. I
always play this in my head sitting in an aircraft going down the
runway. As I hear the music I sense the pilot piling on the power
sending me into the next adventure.
Updated 30 December 2023