What the chuff?

Nige is a 43 year old Methodist with two passions: the church, and model trains. But it was only when the two came together that something really wonderful was born.

“Most model exhibitions take place on Sundays,” says Nige, “and I always felt guilty having to miss church to exhibit my model layout. But I slowly realised that church was about more than being in a certain building at a certain time each week. In fact, I felt the same presence of God amongst the Hornby ’00’ locomotives and my fellow exhibitors. That was when I had the idea…”

For a few years Nige had been doing a special ‘kids hour’ on his layout – 60 minutes in the middle of the exhibition when period authenticity is waived in order to have some fun with scale models of favourite childrens tv trains instead. In these crowd-pulling spots ‘Ivor the Engine’ can be seen tearing round the track as can a specially built ‘Wallace and Grommit’ re-enacting a popular model railway scene from the animated film. But the big stars here are Gordon, Henry, Percy and friends – the locomotives from the well-loved stories by the Rev W Audrey.

“Before long I wasn’t just running the childrens trains, but acting out entire stories and I thought to myself: ‘Why not use this opportunity to tell the greatest story of them all?'”

And so, the stories of ‘Doubting Thomas the Tank Engine’ were born.

Nige now tells stories from the Old and New Testaments to a crowd of all ages totally engrossed in the spectacle. Each is re-told in a railway setting with trains usually standing in for biblical characters. Some of the existing models already had appropriate names – ‘Peter the Green Engine’ and ‘James the Red Engine’ from the Rev W Audrey’s stories were quickly put into service as apostles, but some required a more creative approach – Mary is represented by a Virgin Voyager. Even ‘The Fat Controller’ has stood in for God.

A big challenge was how to represent Jesus himself, but I eventually settled on The Flying Scotsman. I find it apt that the King of Trains represents the King of Kings.” says Nige, without a hint of irony. Although not everyone picks up on the symbolism: “One chap got quite upset that I was suggesting Jesus might have been Scottish”, Nige remembers, “but once I explained the power of metaphor as used in the parables – and let him have a go operating the signals – he calmed down.”

The attention to detail is what’s truly impressive. One show-stopper is the feeding of the five thousand: at a packed Nazareth Junction a 2-4-0 tank engine is despatched to fetch more coal, but returns having found only 5 pieces and two buckets of water. Miraculously this is enough to raise full steam on all the locos present and there are 12 trucks of coal left over.

“It’s more than entertainment,” claims Nige, “I believe we’re genuinely building Church here.” And good to his word, Nigel shows us his latest model – a perfect ‘OO’ scale Cathedral.
Nige Gresley was interviewed by Jo Kerr