Passing by, as he does from time to time around half five just as the door is closing and we head for a beverage and pork pies, Nick Godfrey managed to time a jaunt to The Swan perfectly. Talk turned to Albury and model railways. Godders now has a grandson and generally they are second only to old people, especially really old ones in wheelchairs, for usefulness in getting you into places most can’t. “You ever been to Bekonscot?” I asked him. Turned out that despite having lived in Chesham forever his parents had never taken him. Now his lovely, now sadly departed, dad had clearly missed a trick or two or was an unfit father. My brother and I got dragged off at every opportunity as did Jane, lent out as an excuse for an older generation to visit without suspicion. Our grandchildren get the same treatment. We could make a fortune. The challenge was set and we agreed to watch the weather in the coming week and put wrongs right. He’d borrow his grandson and I’d grab a handful of ours. Time was short as he was about to restore a VW Beetle, go and climb a very high mountain in Nepal, canoe down the Grand Canyon, trek across Peru and get stuck in a ravine in Colorado so the first sunny day was grabbed and off we went, Nick, me and four small people. Brilliant.
Bekonscot model village came into being in the mid-twenties when Roland Callingham’s, a London Accountant, model railway outgrew his sitting room, lounge, loft and kitchen in central Beaconsfield. There was a large meadow adjacent to his house so after a bit of an ultimatum from his wife he moved it outdoors. Little could his missus have realised what had occurred. It wasn’t long before the miniature buildings and railway, commissioned from Bassett Lowke, and lovingly built by him, his chauffeur, housekeeper and gardener, had caught the attention of a broader public and it opened to the public. The scale used is roughly 1:12 for the buildings and 1:32 (Gauge 1) for the railway. Local buildings feature throughout and as many were constructed from pictures sourced from postcards, memory or photos they are caricatures. It is categorically not serious, it is to be enjoyed and everywhere is humour. It used to be kept updated but back in 1992 it reverted back to the original 1930s theme so today it is largely as it was in its early days but not restored, more like in good repair and as such is now just a moment caught in time. Additions and alterations in keeping with the era still continue and there are subtle changes each time you visit and believe me one visit is nowhere near enough. The numbers are amazing. Over 14 million visitors have now raised over five million pounds for charities since it opened. Today, thankfully, the Church Army co-run the place ensuring it won’t close which, seeing’s it is in the middle of Beaconsfield, one of the most expensive places in Britain to live, that’s a huge relief. So popular is it don’t be surprised if you end up parking (free) round the back of a local church. Thing is my parents have pictures of us which are the same as the one’s of our kids and now we have ones of the grandchildren in the same spots with the same glee on their faces.
If you have never visited this place it isn’t a giant train set or twee model village, fie on you, it is a place of imagination and timelessness, one where you need to pay attention to detail. There is more missed than seen. One lap is not enough, at least three circuits are needed first visit. Once inside you can just let the kids go. Providing they don’t actually de-rail a train or wander into the fairground there isn’t a problem. Even if they do it is sort of expected and no-one will yell at you or them, a member of staff will quietly sort the devastation out with a smile and plonk the errant child back on a path. The atmosphere and eternal sunny day feel of the place means all seem to naturally respect it. Its wonderful. Armed with the small people we were quickly through the gate. We showed Charlie, Holly, Ewan and Nicole where the ice creams and toilets were and Nick and I set off to join the other grown ups grinning and pointing. Actually we didn’t really do that. We just stood back and watched the delight on the kids’ faces. Ewan was transfixed by the Aerodrome, then a train came along. They were off peering in windows leaning over roofs to watch trains arriving at stations. Laughing at the kid with a saucepan on his head in the hospital (based on the old Amersham hospital), the handbag thief being chased by the policeman at the racecourse and the thatched cottage on fire, smoke pouring from the roof. No problems, the Bekonscot fire brigade were there. Meanwhile in a quiet grassy field a couple were picnicking whilst their chauffeur attended to the car. Then there were the sharks swimming in the harbour, large orange ones waiting for a small child to fall in we told them. We pointed out to a young chap pushing a buggy that it was clearly empty. “Borrowed it of me sister”, he said, as if he needed an excuse to be there whilst an old gent with a notebook and camera was actually train spotting. Lovely, brilliant, yet despite being busy it wasn’t crowded. Strange that, like the fact that the windmill is smaller than when I first went there?
Trains rattled out of tunnels and down the side of the paths. Kids zoomed about trying to beat them to the next bridge. We headed off to the Coalmine past the pub (there are quite a few pubs) and waved at the miner in the window of the coal elevator. Nick was transfixed. Then there is the village green scene with the painter dropping his pot of paint on the head of the vicar because his mate, who is holding the ladder, is sneaking a kiss off a pretty girl. There are climbers, an angry bull and a bloke filling up a roadster with a fag on. It really is that wonderous. You soon become part of this trip back in time. It is all innocence and happiness. Apart from a couple of tiny bits of artificial grass all the greenery is trimmed miniature bushes, trees and grass. The stone walls are stone and the bricks miniatures. The difference in scale between the figures, buildings and trains doesn’t matter. You just suddenly don’t notice it. Only when a huge double-decker airbus rumbled quietly overhead fresh out of Heathrow did reality kick in but it lasted but a moment. On the bowling green a rotund fellow, probably the keeper, took a drag on his Capstan and time slipped slowly by while on the lake sailing boats jibed and tacked and a cat stole cakes off a table at the hotel while swimmer floated face down in the pool! Old or young you need to get down on hands and knees and watch trains come out of tunnels or disappear into trees then look in windows and over walls. No one takes any notice or will think odd of you. Best bit though is to stand back and take a moment watching the delight on childrens’ faces. They get it.
There are a few little notices telling you what the building is (to scale) but most you may recognise if you live locally. Enid Blyton’s Beaconsfield home, Green Hedges, is there and in one quiet undeveloped corner the Hoover Building façade is under construction. You really do need to look beyond the scenes though. Stare over the terraced houses by the airfield by the control tower and there is a street party going on. In the garden a large lady struggles with a sheet whilst next door a husband is attacked by runner beans. Granted that a lot of stuff may well be considered ‘non-PC’ these days, but it isn’t these days in Bekonscot, although even back then the fox was streaks ahead of the hunt. Then there is the fairground, zoo, castles with parading troops and local village bobbies abound. It’s the little touches though. The best little bit is the Bekonscot Town corner. The shops all have great names, puns on the trades like ‘Sam and Ellas’ (Butchers) and if you lean on the station roof and look down at the platform the station master is looking back at you. Just brilliant.
Ice creams called an interlude. “One more lap?” we asked. They were gone again in search of the spooky ghost pirate ship now partially overrun by giant water-lillies. If you have never been you have missed a bit of Village Green Preservation Society, an age where pounds shillings and pence ruled, cars were luxuries and people went to the seaside for their holidays if they were lucky enough and the sun always shone during the summer holidays. Somewhere amongst the figures must be the Famous Five but I have yet to find them.
Bekonscot is in the middle of Beaconsfield, five minutes off the M40. Entry fees are extremely reasonable considering how much time you can (need to) spend there. There is a good snack shop with sensible prices and a great play area for the kids and train rides on a larger gauge railway just inside the entrance. Check out the train driver’s eye view link and be sure to look up!
www.bekonscot.co.uk/ The official website with opening times and lots of stuff.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMsJ_P6d-zg Ten scale miles worth of the drivers’ eye view. Just brilliant.
http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/apr/25/how-does-garden-grow-bekonscot-model-village bit about the gardener there.