A Musical Railway Ride Through My Life

In the Beginning
Primary School
High School - Eltham College
Reading University
British Railways


There have 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

Early Days

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 senses. 

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 of 31777 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.

The works plate from a C class locomotive 31(695) purchased from Ashford Works

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.

Rossini Overture "Gazza Ladra or Thieving Magpie"

By this time my musical education was well on its way. It was supplemented by a loan from another neighbour, Bert Ogden, of Mozart’s 23rd piano concerto in A K488.

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.

Eltham College – High School

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, Eltham was 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 I spent much time not knowing what was expected of me. This created insoluble problems in my family relations. ("Why do you want to learn Latin, it won't help you get a job"). I found my accent and use of words was very different from that of my family. 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
Gustav Holst's suite "The Planets"
Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite.
Sibelius - Finlandia and Karelia (particularly the Intermezzo) Suites

My mother took me to a Carol concert at Lewisham Town Hall.  Ralph Vaughan Williams was in the audience.

Beethoven Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral) with the beautiful last movement (Shephers's song after the storm)
Mozart Symphony No. 39 (especially the minuet, third movement)
Percy Grainger - Molly on the Shore, Handel in the Strand
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

Mozart Horn Concerti, Clarinet Concerto
Mendelsohn Violin Concerto, Italian Symphony, The Hebrides Overture
Marie-Joseph Canteloube de Malaret - Chants d'Auvergne

I saved up my pocket money and bought two 45 rpm discs
Mozart Eine Keine Nachtmusik
The andante cantabile from the Tchaikovsky string quartet No. 1 Op 11. sustained me through many sleepless nights approaching finals at Reading University.

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

School friend and later best man, David Rhys-Tyler arranged for a trip to hear a Promenade Concert in the Royal Alvert Hall. We had seats in a box.This was the first time I had heard the Brahms Violin Concerto. I quickly found the cash to buy a recording.

Reading University

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.
Ralph Vaughan Williams - English Folk Songs, Fantasia on Greensleeves, Sea Songs, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.
Max Bruch - Scottish Fantasie

Bach Violin Concerti

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.
Enigma Variations, Pomp and Circumstance, Serenade for Strings, Land of Hope and Glory.

- Other university favourites were The Brahms Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky Andante Cantabile

Other railway highlights of this period

Riding the headend of a large freight train on the Great Northern Railroad, Wenatchee, Wash. USA. This was during a summer visit to the United States before returning to the UK to start work on British Railways

British Railways

My 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.
Ralph Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending
Although based in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, which was English speaking I also had Whitland which was Welsh speaking. I went to the Whitland annual railway staff caberet. I was the only one who didn't speak Welsh and had no idea what to expect. This caberet consisted of small groups singing and playing traditional Welsh songs interspersed with a choir of the entire audience. One small group was accompanied by a musical saw. I have never forgotten how the entire room would burst spontaneously into a well loved song. I have since loved Welsh singing. One of the songs I remember is Calon Lān (A Pure Heart); Sospan Fach; Cwm Rhondda; Men of Harlech, Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.

Railway highlights of this period
- firing Clun Castle on the 1615 Paddington to Banbury


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
All the Brahms symphonies
Bach Brandonburg concerti
Bach Goldberg Variationas
Haydn String Music and symphonies
Aaron Copland - Appalachian Spring, Fanfare for a Common Man
Vaughan Williams - Symphonies, The Lark Ascending, Dives and Lazarus, The Wasps, In the Fen Country, A Norfolk Rhapsody, Linden Lea.
Mozart operas. Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni

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.

Paul and I with John Nelham at the sample car inspection in Hamilton 1982

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
- finding a steam locomotive for the National Capital Commission. Several summers working on 1057 and 1201


Working on the Royal Train with 1201 in 1977


Riding the cab of the French TVG at 300 kmph

A couple of years before retirement I went to Buenos Aires for two weeks and gave a series of seminars on railway safety. At the conclusion I was asked to move to Argentina full time and run their railway safety program. It was very attractive and Mary and I started to learn Spanish. However, in the end I declined because it would have ruined my Canadian government superannuation.

A special train put on for me at El Maiten. I was asked where I wanted to ride. I chose the fireman's seat


Retirement 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
Barber of Seville". On the same trip, at Treviso, we were treated to a performance of the Mozart Clarinet concerto by I Soliciti Venite.

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.

During one of our trips to Argentina, Mary and I stayed at a place near Esquel (Cholila?) where there was an apple orchard for sale. We discussed selling up and buying the orchard. Was this our Linden Lea? Vaughan Williams put the poem Linden Lea to music

Within the woodlands, flow’ry gladed,
By the oak trees’ mossy moot,
The shining grass blades, timber shaded,
Now do quiver underfoot;
And birds do whistle overhead,
And water’s bubbling in its bed;
And there for me, the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

When leaves, that lately were a-springing,
Now do fade within the copse,
And painted birds do hush their singing,
Up upon the timber tops;
And brown leaved fruit’s a-turning red,
In cloudless sunshine overhead,
With fruit for me, the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

Let other folk make money faster
In the air of dark-room’d towns;
I don’t dread a peevish master,
Though no man may heed my frowns.
I be free to go abroad,
Or take again my homeward road
To where, for me, the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

Music and railways have guided me in the search for my Linden Lea. I have found my Linden Lea - it is Maple Island on the Rideau river.

In recent years I have enjoyed several trips to Switzerland with my son Paul with the sole intention of learning about the Swiss railways, one of the best systems in the world.

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 15 May 2024