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Stations @ Stations: a reflection on a reflection

by Ruth Thomas, 22 April 2009

 Initially it seemed little more than a play on words, almost a joke. According to the Church Times (see www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=72394), a volunteer on the Talyllyn railway in Tywyn, Gwynedd, had arranged for a ‘Stations of the Cross’ series of meditations to take place at the various stations of the railway on Good Friday, with a specially chartered train. But a joke can contain truth within it, and anyway we had already planned a family holiday in Tywyn for the fortnight of Holy and Easter Weeks and we all like trains. Perhaps it would be worth finding out more.

Arriving in Tywyn the day before Palm Sunday, the first stop was the window of the Roman Catholic church, conveniently positioned next to the town’s main-line railway station and displaying details of all the churches in town. There was a copy of the same Church Times article and a note that tickets were free but there weren’t many left. Not too hopeful then. But an enquiry the next day at the Talyllyn railway’s Wharf station resulted in enough tickets for the family. Later in the week notices appeared saying that the train was sold out but they would try to squeeze extra folk onto it by asking children to sit on parents’ knees. In the end the maximum-length train ran with over 160 people on it and the 145-year-old engine at the front, Talyllyn, definitely had its work cut out.

 Timing for the event was fairly tight. The first Station of the Cross started at 4:45 pm in the museum at Wharf, then the train had to reach the first stop up the line, at Pendre, to cross there with the last of the day’s scheduled trains. It proceeded up the line, stopping at each railway station for one or two meditative Stations, and the final Station at Brynglas needed to take place before darkness fell soon after 8 pm. The event developed a strong liturgical feel with its repeated structure: train journey, get out, walk a few yards and gather round the leaders, a Bible reading in English then Welsh, a meditation (in English only), shared silence, then a quick peep on a guard’s whistle signalling time to move on to the next Station.

 The fact that the weather was kind undoubtedly helped greatly, as there was no problem with discomfort while listening to the meditations or mud underfoot, and all could enjoy the spectacularly beautiful surroundings at their springtime best. The times of silence were enhanced by birdsong and the bleats of nearby sheep, with just the occasional noise from a restless child (including my own, I’m afraid – it was a long event for little ones, but nobody complained about them). These were times and places where the veil between heaven and earth seemed thinner than usual, and you could reach across and touch.

 The aspect of the event that took me by surprise was the friendliness of other passengers in the carriage we travelled in. As a seasoned traveller on preserved railways, I expect those sharing a carriage to exchange a few vaguely friendly words. This time everyone was happy to talk: about the event itself, the railway and locality, church activities, even about their relationship with God. Welsh-speakers used English to include the non-locals. One gentleman in our carriage was confined to a mobility scooter and unable to get out of the train for most of the meditations (there are only ramps available at a few of the Talyllyn stations), and others ensured that he was not excluded beyond what could not be helped. A local church minister and regular railway volunteer ‘hosted’ our carriage and the next one along, ensuring everyone knew what was going on.

 The event was notable in many ways: for its traditionalism as well as its quirkiness, its ecumenism and bilingualism (readers and participants came from all the churches in Tywyn), its friction-free mixture of locals and holidaymakers, its inclusion of all ages, and its international focus with prayers and a collection for an Anglican diocese in Zimbabwe whose bishop had until recently been based near Tywyn. Perhaps most notable of all was that the event was free, and no collection was taken to defray its expenses. The train had been chartered by an anonymous benefactor, so there was no charge for a ride that on a scheduled service train would have cost £12.50 per adult.

At the end of the event one of the leaders commented that they hoped to run it again next year, and I know many of those who took part are very much hoping that will happen. And I’m sure that if necessary most of them will be happy to contribute to the costs. It’s already in my diary.

 Ruth Thomas, 22 April 2009