All is calm, all is bright.

Tonight, miraculously,  I had got my three children into a church for the first time in I don’t know when.  Normally it would be easier to get them into a cold shower.  Their mother was singing in a choir at a Christmas Carol concert in St Andrew’s central church in Plymouth; foregoing the Xbox and the Facebook they came out to support her.

The church stands on a spot in the city, where there has been a house of worship in one form or another since the 8th century.

In March 1941, the Church was bombed and badly damaged. Amid the smoking ruins a Imagelocal headmistress nailed over the door a wooden sign saying simply Resurgam (Latin for I shall rise again), indicating the wartime spirit, a gesture repeated at other devastated European churches. That entrance to St Andrew’s is still referred to as the “Resurgam” door and a carved granite plaque is now permanently fixed there.

The repairs took a long time to complete and St Andrews was re-consecrated on the 30th  November 1957, St Andrew’s Day.


An RNLI volunteer lifeboat his the waves on a mad dash to a rescue.

The Carol Concert was in aid of the RNLI – the Royal National Lifeboat Institute.  For those who do not know, the RNLI is the organisation that co-ordinates a network of over 340 coastal rescue lifeboats manned by unpaid volunteers who risk their lives at anytime of the day or night to rescue people and vessels that are in distress around our coastline.  These extraordinary men and women have day jobs, but when that blare of the coxswains’ horn blows (or their mobile phones ring in modern day) they drop whatever they are doing, rush to the lifeboat station and jump into a moving boat as it shoots down the slipway into rhe angry sea. They go wherever they are sent, regardless of the conditions, whatever the hour, however the distance to reach those who are in peril on the sea.  On rare tragic occasions; they do not return.

In their 150 years the RNLI crews have saved nearly 140,000 souls.  This year the Plymouth Lifeboat station has launched a crew 93 times.  They all returned safely, usually with a tethered boat in tow or rescued seamen on board.  Just like the New York Firemen; when that bell goes they don’t know if it’s a rubbish bin on fire or the World Trade Centre.  The commitment and dedication is just as great.

Man’s contribution to fellow man doesn’t get much better than this.

The hairs on the back of my neck rose thinking of these brave people as we sang “While Shepherds watched their flocks by night”

The Choir did “oh, Hand me down my silver trumpet, Gabriel”    The room was rocking!

Then there was a prayer.

The mature and deep sounds of the huge pipe Organ softly ushered us into Silent Night.  Standing next to my children and us all singing that most familiar and comforting of carols.  I was their age again.  I never can be sure where that Christmas hymn will take me, but tonight I suddenly remembered the legendary photographer O.Winston Link.

Link was a commercial photographer between the 1930’and the late 1980s.   He had a very particular style he O. Winston Link, town store.self-consciously set out to present an idealized America, and although the true worth of these images wouldn’t be fully appreciated for many years.   In most of his advertising and corporate assignments he was photographing in his unique and distinctive way the end of a prosperous Appalachia — the end of small-town America.

link-1955-telegraph office

Telegraph office, Norfolk & Western Railway, 1956

He trained as an engineer but you know how life is, he took up photography instead.  He was always in awe of the great Steam Railways of America.   In 1955 on an assignment to Roanoke, Virginia he came across the Norfolk and Western Railway, one of the last lines in America to change from steam to Diesel. That was it!  He was hooked and he dedicated all his spare time to photographing the men and machines of a railway system that was in the last throws before extinction. .  The Norfolk and Western board of directors, who realised the importance this; granted him unfettered access to their entire Railway to document its passing.

What made link’s railway pictures so special was that he shot them at night.   He once said “I can’t move the sun — and it’s always in the wrong place” He preferred to bring his own dash of light.

linkThis presented enormous technical difficulties, not least of which; he couldn’t see the image the moment  he was photographing it – because he was using flash so all he could spy in the camera was mostly darkness.    Shooting most of his images on a 4×5 plate camera, which is a box with a lens on bellows and the sheet film had to be slipped into the back of the camera,   A protective slide would then be removed, revealing the sheet film to the lens.

Link and Thom with Night Flash Equipment

O.Winston Link,(left) and his assistant George Thom with night flash Equipment. New York, March 16, 1956.

He would press the shutter and with the aid of the dozens and dozens of one-time use flash bulbs, he would illuminate a vast area and create the picture.  He never knew what the image would look like until a day or two later.  He would only ever get one chance.  Having taken most of the day to erect his elaborate lighting set-up, doing a retake was impossible.

Besides taking his pictures, Link would sometimes make audio recordings of the trains; which he later released  on disc with extensive sleeve notes about the locations and the engines.

Three weeks after St Andrew’s church in Plymouth was re-consecrated, O.Winston Link was scouting out a picture opportunity for another night shot and a sound recording, in the small prairie town of Rural Retreat, Virginia.

As he was watching Train 17 – “The Birmingham Special” roll through Rural Retreat, having planned do the picture of this service the next night, Christmas Eve, he heard the sound of “Silent Night” coming from a nearby Church.  Whoever was practicing the organ, Link felt ought to be on the planned recording of the train.   Next morning he found the person playing; it was Mrs Katherine Dodson who was the organist at the Grace Lutheran church.  She agreed to play for him that evening.


At  11.37 on Christmas Eve night 1957, station agent Mr J L Akers waved through the last train of the night; for almost nine minutes after taking this iconic picture, Link’s reel to reel tape machine recorded every click and rattle and blast of steam as the powerful J Class steam locomotive hauled its 17 cars through the town and out across the prairie until it became almost inaudible; and all the while, Mrs Dodson was playing Silent Night on the Church Chimes.

A week later the last steam service ran through Rural Retreat and the age of steam had come to an end in America.

That’s what ran through my mind tonight as we sang …”Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright….

Merry Christmas.


The rcording can be heard here: –

About Bill Hayes

I have a very large sea shell collection; it's too big to keep at home, so I have left the collection scattered on various beaches around the world. Perhaps you've seen some it.
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34 Responses to All is calm, all is bright.

  1. What a fabulous story, thank you!

  2. katecrimmins says:

    Great story and have a great holiday!

  3. Oh how I love this story! You’re an amazing story teller and I hope you know that. I’m typing my comment while listening to the Silent Night recording (via your link) and I could hear the sound of wind, train, bells, whistles and they feel so close to me.

    There’re so many charities in this country that sometimes it’s hard to know what to do with them as one can only do so much. Some charities are more developed with better images and PR and they may get funding more easily. Thank you for bringing RNLI to my attention and it is possibly one of those charities that get ignored easily by most people. RNLI reminds me of Doctors Without Borders. I’ll make sure I won’t walk away from this charity in the future.

    • Bill Hayes says:

      Thanks for your kind words. I like a good srory, and on Christmas Eve what better time to tell them.

      Do have a great Xmas, hope you’re not flooded out. Down here in Devon, things are a little wet to say the least.


  4. Hi Bill,

    I’ve put a link of this post on my sidebar as I hope more people would read it. The image file is this one:

    And, on your gravatar page, you haven’t put your link to your WordPress blog yet. Perhaps it’s an oversight. Without a link, when people click your image (when you ‘like’ someone — if you ever ‘like’ someone at all), they’ll only get to see your image and they can’t get to this wonderful blog.

    • Bill Hayes says:

      Hey Janet,

      That’s very nice of you. Nice job on the artwork for the sidebar. I am very touched that you were moved by the story enough to get a recomend on your pages.

      I went and did the Gravatar link to my blog (I think). It was an oversight. If all they get to see is my image then pity them. I get to see it everymorning in the mirror, so I know how they must feel. 🙂

      Nice to know you.

  5. Now it’s just perfect! Good job!

  6. ideflex says:

    You have a gift for storytelling that reminds me of James Burke and the Connections series… Thanks for visiting and leading me back to your posts.

  7. What a lovely recounting of a fascinating tale. Great stuff! Thanks for stopping by my little blog and for following. Based on the essence of this one post, I have hastened to return the favour. Cheers mate!

  8. Hi! I’ve nominated you for the Super Sweet Blogging Award – just follow the link:

    • Bill Hayes says:

      Hi Mike,

      Thank you so much for this award (my first), I was very excited. I am part of the gang now. 🙂 I can’t attend to this at the moment as I am away from home doing that stuff they call work.

      If I may, I will delay this till next week..

      Thank you again.

  9. TBM says:

    140,000 people. That’s remarkable.

  10. jalal michael sabbagh. says:

    Delightful.inspiring post.Thank you for following my site.Blessings and regard.Jalal michael

  11. Stories like this one are so important to recognize. It’s an interesting one and should’t be forgotten. Great post!

  12. Great post. I loved the old photos! I loved the stories as well. I have a hard time getting the kids in a church all at once myself. Right now it seems to be Christmas Eve and Easter when I have success. Maybe if I sang…no, that would just drive them and everyone else out of the sanctuary!

  13. wonderful blog you have here. thanks for following my blog.

  14. I nominated you for a Reality Blog award 🙂
    If you don’t have this award yet, please accept it from me! 🙂

  15. ShimonZ says:

    This was a very beautiful post, and I especially liked the photos and stories about OW Link (especially since I have worked with 4×5 cameras for most of my life). Thank you so much for sharing with us these thoughts, stimulated by the sanctity of a particular moment, and a much loved song.

  16. Phenomenal story and story writer! I’m very glad I found this blog. Reading this at the start of my day gave me an extra boost of inspiration! Thank you so much for sharing! 🙂

    • Bill Hayes says:

      Hey, that’s nice. Always good to kick the day off with a bit of inspiration. You should try “As we set sail” that’s got a bit hope going for it.

      Thanks for visiting. Had a quick peek at your place – the big red lips gave me a bit of shock. I’ll be back.

  17. poet365 says:

    This is my first visit here but I will be
    calling back as your style of blogging
    is set to a very high calibre.

    Well done, this post is a brilliant one.

  18. Bill Hayes says:

    Reblogged this on matteringsofmind and commented:

    Lazy Christmas week – I didn’t finish my new posts so I thought for the new readers who have joined since last year I would repost this.

    To those who already have read it, put your feet up and have a glass of mulled wine on me. Happy Christmas.

  19. Fantastic account and images! Thanks.

  20. Pingback: 66: Starts with a Train. Ends with a Moose. | Almofate's Likes

  21. amommasview says:

    I’m so glad your sharing these stories with us! I learned a lot and it’s such a pleasure reading your words!

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