THE Downpatrick & County Down Railway is celebrating the centenary of the birth of the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, the creator of one of the world’s most popular children’s characters, as it opens its doors for its “Summer Steam” season, with trains running every weekend till mid-September.
Born on 15th June, 1911, the Reverend Awdry went on to create a publishing and television legend. The Reverend had a passion for railways which had been instilled in him by his father. When his own son, Christopher, fell ill with measles, the Reverend brightened up his bed-bound quarantine by telling him stories and drawing pictures about a group of little engines, as DCDR Chairman, Michael Collins explained:
“In 1943, when the Rev Wilbert Awdry composed a bedtime story, the first in what was to become the Thomas the Tank Engine series, to amuse his young son Christopher he cannot have foreseen the wonderful world he would soon open up for generations of children. In fact Thomas did not appear in this first story, Edward and Gordon were on the scene first, but when the lovable Thomas was invented in 1946, he rapidly took centre stage.”
Michael added, “From such humble beginnings grew the whole world of Thomas, his friends and the mythical island of Sodor. The idea of Sodor came to Awdry from the name of the ancient diocese of Sodor and Man. This includes the Isle of Man, but there is no longer a Sodor, so Awdry created a new island of Sodor just off the Cumbrian coast and connected to Barrow-on-Furness by a long bridge. As a result engines could, and were from time to time exchanged with British Railways on the mainland.”
He said that his interest in railways was ‘assisted’ by the little blue tank engine, “I first came across the Thomas books in the 1950’s and every generation of children since my time has been fascinated by Thomas and his world. Awdry had to create a complete and consistent geography and history of Sodor and its railways and any inconsistencies were rapidly spotted by his young readers.
“In recent years the TV series, voiced by Ringo Starr, has given a whole new life to Thomas and he is now a major industry with the films, books, models and all sorts of other merchandise devoted to him and the other characters. It would be hard to find today, in the British Isles at least, a child who has not heard of Thomas, Edward, Bertie, the Fat Controller, et al.”
He adds, “What is fascinating for those of us operating heritage railways like that at Downpatrick is how for a generation of children half a century removed from steam trains in everyday use, Thomas and steam trains still epitomise the ‘railway’ and how our steam engines (in the case of Downpatrick, all full-sized Thomas’s) are quickly christened by our young visitors names such as Hermann the German engine and Harvey the Harbour engine – so long may the magic of Thomas continue!”
The centenary is also being marked by Royal Mail, who have issued a set of special stamps. Issued on 14th June, these include six long-format stamps and a miniature sheet of four stamps. The stamps celebrate the images familiar from the TV series Thomas & Friends, while the mini sheet features original illustrations from The Railway Series books.
Back at Downpatrick’s railway, doors open to the public on both Saturdays and Sundays, with the first train leaving at 2 o’clock with the last train returning from Inch Abbey at 5 o’clock.
And while Thomas may not be hauling the train, he will be making an appearance at the railway’s model railway exhibition, and there’s be plenty of Thomas memorabilia available in the shop, and maybe even Thomas cake in the buffet carriage so you can celebrate Thomas’s dad’s birthday yourselves.
Fares are £5.50 adults and £4.50 children and senior citizens, while children under the age of three go free!