A brief history of model villages: BBC’s One Foot in the Past

One Foot in the Grave was a pretty ace comedy that ran on the BBC from 1990 to 2000. One Foot in the Past was a pretty ace architecture programme that ran on the BBC from 1993 to 2000; produced rather splendidly I think, by another Tim Dunn. Anyway, One Foot in the Past had as part of its title sequence a JCB digger apparently digging up and destroying little model buildings depicting British rural life. According to presenter Kirsty Wark, they received more mail about those title sequences than any other feature.

To satisfy the viewing public’s thirst for knowledge (it’s not THAT niche; look, you’re reading this blog…) they produced a feature on the history of Britain’s model villages, taking in Southport, Babbacombe, Bekonscot and others. It’s a well-researched piece with some pretty good archive footage (mostly from the Bekonscot reels that we’ve got stashed away) and it did much to popularise miniature and model villages amongst an audience usually seeking out “real” buildings.

The BBC apparently gave Bekonscot approval at the time of filming for us to use it in educational and archive purposes – so here it is for your education. I think it’s about 1996. Um, and it’s off a knackered VHS. Sorry about that.

A trip round the Bekonscot Model Railway

A few years ago, I was ‘playing trains’ in the signalbox at Bekonscot Model Village. In a quiet moment, I sellotaped a small camera on to a wagon, stuck a spare loco behind it and sent it off around the circuit. That evening, I added a few captions and uploaded it to Youtube. I think it was after I’d been to the pub, too.

Four years on, it’s had 360,000 views on Youtube. Looking back, we had no idea it would be so popular. We’d perhaps have stood some of the fallen model people up, trimmed some of the bushes and put out all of the 30+ model signals that should line the route. Perhaps it’s time to do a new one. Anyway, enjoy the drivers-eye view of Britain’s biggest model train set.

Bourton-on-the-Water Model Village now Grade II Listed

The beautiful 1:9 scale 1937 model of Bourton-on-the-Water in the grounds of the Old New Inn (good sandwiches, by the way) has been listed by English Heritage this week as worthy of Grade II protected status. This is excellent news: the model, an accurate replica of the Cotswolds town in which it’s based, is built in the local stone and with exquisite craftsmanship.

It even includes that staple of model villages: a model village within a model village. Within a model village, obviously.

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Bourton-on-the-Water Model Village on my last visit, July 2009

An early example of a miniature park, it is predated by “public” ones of significance only by Bekonscot, in Beaconsfield, Bucks; a model village I’ve long had an association with.

Model villages, by and large, have been ignored by architectural specialists as “toy towns”. But the awarding of protection of Bourton ratifies their significance: this stunning example of craftsmanship is not just a miniaturised approximation of reality but in itself a thing of wonder, the work of artistry and skill. The last few years have seen significant investment back into the village, and stonework repairs have started to bring the model back to its former glory.

The Guardian wrote about the listing of Bourton-on-the-Water’s model village, and you can read the full English Heritage Listing notes here.

Splendid stuff, and congratulations to all at the Old New Inn.