Some years ago following a site-seeing trip travelling to fly at the Devon Show the next day, in the bar that evening, someone asked Greggy what the hi-light of the trip down was seeing’s we’d arrived using the A303 and had visited Silbury Hill, some impressive erratics, Maiden Castle, Seaton Tramway, Sidmouth and Seaton Junction Stations, amongst other notable historic places on route. Taking a thoughtful drag on his B&H, he replied with due deference and conviction, “Peco World was closed.” You can laugh, but whereas I’ll grant you that although there is a fine line between a layout and a model railway a trainset is a completely different thing. Comment that a fully signalled scale model of Charing Cross Station is just some bloke’s trainset, even in jest, deserves a very large piece of four by two. A trainset is what gets you started, an oval of track and probably a goods train, but add a few straights and stick it permanently on a base or combine it with the contents of the toy box and it morphs into a layout, now add some permanent scenery, houses, animals and roads and, at a pinch, a set of points and it is now becoming a model railway. I think my first introduction to the proper thing was Bekonscot which was built back in the thirties and if you have never been taken there then you need to call Childline for you have been cruelly treated. It is one of the Wonders of the World and you need to visit. Take a hip-flask, cheese sandwiches and a small child and you will be happier than the day you discovered real ale. It is truly brilliant, wonderful and utterly wasted on children alone, mind you the shrieks of joy and demented small people charging round the winding paths in pursuit of a train or in search of the Coal Mine is a pleasure to behold. It has an airfield, a windmill on a hill and a harbour in which golden sharks cruise. There’s a choir practising in the church and a zoo. As if that isn’t enough the main bridge is a scale model of the Sydney Harbour Bridge but with trains running over it. Spot on cobber. We were extremely small people when we were first dragged there by my enthusiastic father (clearly as an excuse). My ‘Lovely Brother’ promptly de-railed the first train that rattled by but that was par for the course and such occurrences are still treated sympathetically today which, when we took our kids and then grandchildren, although Charlie let the side down by merely pointing, is nice.
Now I can’t really remember the order of events after the train from Maryloo came to grief as it approached Green Hailey but I do remember the outcome which was that my old man built ‘My Brother’ and me a model railway that folded down from the wall in the dining room and you could stand in the middle. I think this came about as we had a Hornby ‘O’ gauge Goods Set prior to the Bekonscot visit and having found heaps of extra track at a Jumble Sale we often set up massive layouts in the Dining Room based on a book called 'Floor Games' by no less than H. G. Wells. Yes, this man was a fine follower of model railways and especially lead toys which you were expected to chew upon and go, like the Romans, completely bonkers or lick a drainpipe. Luckily we had plenty of these. Now you may already be losing the plot but be brave as this is a trip into dreams and a happy childhood. Its easier to say that than work out how many decades ago all this took place. Despite the brick box being emptied and every Kelloggs’ bandsman and toy soldier involved, plus the inevitable ‘cow on the line’ and a Britain’s field gun or two that fired Bayko rods we needed more.
Late one night when we were left alone with a bottle of sherry and a broken biscuit each and looked after by a babysitter being worked on by her boyfriend downstairs in the front room whilst our parents lovingly went to Guest Night for Old Colonials at RAF Halton’s Officer’s Mess, Alfred de-Rothschild’s old pad where Jane’s grandmother’s, on her father’s side, first boyfriend was the monkeyman in his human circus and her great-grandfather lit the gas lamps that led up there, we discovered our dad had a fine collection of Bassett-Lowke ‘O’ gauge clockwork engines and rolling stock. We’d known about its existence as he’d started building a trackbed and tunnel under the rockery in the garden but we hadn’t seen the engines. After much searching they were found in a heavy leather suitcase in the wardrobe. Bassett-Lowke were responsible for Bekonscot which is probably why we went so often! It was his and his brother John’s, a BOAC captain at the time, but as he had a couple of daughters our dad sort of got custody of the railway being’s he had a couple of boys. Anyway this collection was rather sacred as it had been put together by his father probably back in the late 1920s early thirties. Star of the engines was 4472, Flying Scotsman, which was built in Doncaster in 1923 and is kind of regarded as ‘the world’s most famous steam engine’. It has certainly seen off a few private owners over the years and is now owned and maintained by the National Railway Museum in York where Tom Donnolly kept his balloons and had his office years ago, so nice link there. Any road up, which is a railway term of course, this railway comprised hand built track, all fishplates and chairs, as well as the engines, coaches and goods wagons but it was an outside setup so the sleepers were kept rather creosotey and as a result they were kept wrapped in sacking and hung in the shed. It was far too big for indoors so we had to see if it would run on Hornby clip together ‘O’ gauge stuff which, of course, it didn’t. Undeterred we went through the suitcase discovering the Royal Scot which, like Flying Scotsman, wouldn’t run round the curves but we did find a Northern Region engine, an LMS compound 2-4-0 (for crying out loud its a wheel arrangement, look it up!) and a rather battered LNER number. Now all we had to do was sort through all the rolling stock to make up goods trains and passenger trains and a construct a line across the landing joining our bedrooms. Naturally our trusty Hornby engines got called up to provide double-headers once we’d worked out a way of to couple them to the Bassett Lowke rolling stock. Best of all we built a loop with a fly-over in my room upon which a head-on collision occurred. That was about when the parents got home and, as predicted, the old boy went totally mental. We would have been beaten had he been able to focus so he ranted instead, grounded us and sent to bed without tea, tripped over his childhood 0-6-0 LMS tank engine and fell down the stairs in about that order. Our mum wasn’t best pleased either and threw a couple of raspberry jam sandwiches at us as we hurtled into our rooms having cleared the landing of railway detritus. We didn’t see Hilary the babysitter again for a few months by which time she'd a new boyfriend. Telling the old fellah that we hadn’t got the trains out of his wardrobe and it wasn’t us clearly hadn’t worked. What did work was that he realised, possibly due to the lump on his head, that we had developed a passion and set to building a proper layout (later to be described as a model railway) on the QT, for that Christmas.
He opted to go for OO/HO to protect his O gauge stuff presumably. In true English place-names style, the two terminals were Upper and Lower Wallop with a stop on the neutral twin line link called, most appropriately, Middle Wallop. It was based on a Triang OO/HO gauge setup with a pannier tank for me and a BR Jinty tank engine for me sweet brother who, of course, I loved dearly. My grandfather on me mothers’ side, who was an electrical engineer for London Transport looking after the substations on the Met (The Metropolitan Line not the Rossers) hand-built a wondrous transformer that was so big you could sit on it and it hummed and supplied a very healthy 12volts and for some reason 6.5volts AC (apparently for signalling) but we never got that far. It got used later on for the Scalextric track and we all got electrocuted one way or the other by the thing. It was scary and mainly smelt of hot waxed paper about to spontaneously combust. I’ve still got it just in case there is a third World War and the village goes 12 volts. He was good at scary things. I remember clearly being shown the row of mercury arc rectifiers in the Watford substation glowing brighter as a train passed by and having an overwhelming desire to flee. The model railway though was wondrous and kept us amused for hours and me father for a lot more no doubt. It was furnished with Airfix kits. Me mum, it turned out, built and painted the lot and most of the scale figures including cows that continued to wander onto the track. There was a church based on Old St Boniface Church, Bonchurch, near Ventnor on the Isle of Wight for me, a windmill modelled on Rolveden’s post mill in Kent and thatched cottages, from Wendover’s Pound Street obviously, for my brother. The signal box was from Oakham. The platforms were adorned with newspaper stands similar to the one I bought a Corgi Dormobile from at Victoria. Happy simple days. We were convinced that he had some OO/HO rolling stock hidden away somewhere but never discovered it and now he has expired we still haven’t so can only assume ‘our’ HO/OO was as much as an adventure to him as us.
He clearly had plans for a bigger layout as we found a rather beautifully built terminus building. Sadly that came to nothing as far as he was concerned but the booking office was used for me brother’s station and I used it in the model railway I built along two sides of my bedroom and onto the window ledge from age about ten and only got dismantled when I discovered loud music, girls and needed somewhere slightly warmer than the shed to build motorbikes. “Ere’ come and see me model railway,” was always a brilliant chat up line as it was actually true. Although I’ve found a picture of a huge snake that I painted on the ceiling there aren’t any pictures of the railway but it had a fine mountain, pre-stressed concrete bridge (very slim), scrapyard and a lake that was home to a Gosling flying boat. Middle Wallop was resurrected as an intermediate station but I can’t recall the names of the stations at each end. There was a branch line to the Lake operated by a railcar. All sorts of adventures took place on it including the odd fire both intentional and once when the fairy lights, nicked from the Christmas Tree, shorted out. I don’t recall sharing it with anyone else but my brother did help with an air crash that ended up destroying a sixties-style balsa wood house that I’d built and the windmill. I think the fire ensued once me mum had gone shopping. Burning plastic does leave a lot of smuts which Airfix should be sued for.
Going through the family photos from long ago I did find some taken by my father of of his aircraft models with the viaduct that carried the Bassett Lowke railway up the side of his garden and we found a diary entry for 1938 saying that the garden railway was complete. Judging by the aircraft the picture may have been later. There is also a rather nice line-up of the engines but that was probably earlier. We also found a picture of our garden with the tunnel under the rockery just visible and another of the LMS compound coming out the other side. I took the entire Bassett-Lowke back to school one year and we set it up in the Boy’s Wing Corridor and scaled the time (physics homework) to recreate Flying Scotsman’s 100mph dash one Sunday afternoon. It ended in tragedy when it derailed on the curve and hit the door of the House Tutor (Metalman) who was busy having a meeting with the House Tutoress, a certain Miss Edrich if I recall. As punishment we had to display the track and engines at school where we were deemed saddos, however, blackmail is a wonderful thing and the following term we set up the all night Scalextric Racing Club.
Our kids have been spared the model railway fantasy on the whole but were dragged repeatedly to Bekonscot by me and loaned to friends various until they started demanding money. I think Alice took a bit of a fancy and did choose a blue shunter when we took her to the Ffestiniog railway when she was too small to understand. Its mint and boxed and should go on eBay. I put together a very old clockwork trainset one Christmas for Charlie which still comes out and has numerous disasters every now’n an then. In the garden is an, as yet unused, trackbed for the Bassett-Lowke and some years long distant past we were going to have a ‘Train Day’. As the grandchildren are getting old enough to appreciate block timing, home signals and running lines I reckon its time to set about building them a railway. Of course I’ll keep it here. My old mate Keith the Train (who has amassed a fortune buying and selling old model railway stuff) has already found a moustached DMU set and I’ve still got all the stuff dating back to about 1962, if I can find it, so a ‘OO’ scale railway based loosely on the now non-existent Halton Branchline ought to do the trick. We have a couple of vacant rooms these days and there is always the attic once we get the jackdaws out the chimney. Go on, admit it, you are almost starting to take an interest. You owe it to yourself, get the railway out. These days it is considered cool and you can buy everything from scale nudists to tower cranes and build a proper town with proper people, none of this virtual nonsense. If you lack space there is always N-gauge but I would advise against letting children play with that as they could easily swallow a coal wagon. Well actually I understand that you can now build a virtual railway on a computer these days, which is probably better than downloading stuff that you have no idea about how it got on the screen or being arrested for playing Candy Spice, or whatever it was stopped the Minister of Transport falling asleep during the debate on HS2 and the future of Crewe. Now I would have been impressed if he was creating a railway based on the Settle-Carlisle.
We took Charlie to the Railex at Stoke Mandeville in the summer and I like to think he was transfixed, not just by the train journey from Wendover to Aylesbury and a friend’s Routemaster providing a connecting bus service but the brilliant stuff there. One chap had built a sort of fictional station called Tower Pier. It had taken him nine years to create and had every detail you could image including a fully operational signal box and, best of all, a Standard Vanguard parked up. It was all perfectly to scale. Now you can go “Err, derr the flanges are not standard and they would never had that class of engine on the Southern,” but really this was a masterpiece and, just like Bekonscot, captured a by-gone age. It is probably as close as you’ll get to reality at this scale. I reckon if you really looked into it there are thousands of trainsets (tremble at the term), layouts and model railways throughout the Kingdom and those that have built them have, and continue, to preserve history. That’s the essence of it really. What is the difference between a scale model of the Cutty Sark or a re-creation of a long-vanished bit of sunny rural England? If you think that detail is lost you really need to go and visit some of these railways, not for the trains running round but for the scenery and hamlets that have been truly re-created in miniature. The piece d’resistance has to be the Gauge 1 steam garden railway like the truly spectacular one built by Paul Abrams to which others are invited to come and run their engines. There is even a trackside B&B if you need a laydown in a darkened room. Of the smaller scale stuff, in my opinion, a true masterpiece can be found in Pendon Museum, Long Wittenham near Didcot in Oxfordshire. Although based on the Great Western Railway it concentrates more on the countryside, people and life of a fictional bit of the Cotswolds as it would have been in the twenties and thirties. It has been lovingly created and is truly beautiful. There is the vicar strolling down a village road, washing hanging out on the lines and runner beans growing in gardens. The buildings are faithful reproductions of those once stood in the area along with a others that still are, albeit altered almost beyond recognition. You soon find yourself becoming completely immersed in this forgotten world. The idea for the layout was started back in 1925 when Roye England arrived from Australia and set about recreating the English countryside in miniature and even now it just continues to grow with new buildings and bits of landscape being worked on and added to all the time.
I’m off up into the loft now to dig out the remains of the old OO train stuff and work out just what will get built. Somewhere up there is the suitcase full of Bassett Lowke rolling stock and a bit of spare track that needs mending. The rest hangs in the shed down the garden. If Charlie behaves he may even be able to help but I suspect the fun will start when he goes home! We’ll definitely set a Train Day for 2015 but in the meantime if you want a real treat click on this link which is the ultimate model railway journey from the driver’s perspective and what every kid wanted to do before the Iphonehome came out. Simply timeless. I reckon you’ll be instantly converted. Watch out for kids pointing and laughing and the dads and granddads pretending not to be that interested. I warn you in advance that the wrest back to reality is not to be underestimated and you should have a drink at the ready. Pure magic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMsJ_P6d-zg
www.bekonscot.co.uk/ Opening times and all that stuff for Bekonscot
http://www.hadleightemple.org.uk/CorpsNews/?p=947 The Tower Pier article.
http://dapol.co.uk/index.php?route=common/home they still make all the airfix stuff including the mobile crane.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXoQJYqL4kw Lovely little film by Bob Symes on Pendon.
http://www.pauls-gaugeone.co.uk/ Paul Abrams site. There is a link to the B&B there.