This summer, I have been very lucky. Among other things, I have co-presented a BBC TV programme (BBC Trainspotting Live), I have been on countless radio stations (thanks for putting up with my wittering), I have learned from clever people, I have been invited to heritage railways and museums to see behind the scenes and I have broadcast live from the footplate of one of my favourite locomotives, Flying Scotsman. Best of all I have joined terrific friends on those trips, and I have made new friends, too. It has been a very odd year, with a few downs as wells as ups, but the chance to share my enthusiasm and delight in some of my hobbies and interests has been (and it sounds such a sodding cliche, I know) a privilege. But it really has. I never expected to be given the chances that I have had this last year, and I’m hopeful that I’m enabling and maybe inspiring others to do interesting things as a result.
One of my standout weekends was one of several visits to the Talyllyn Railway, in west Wales. This pootling, tootling, little narrow gauge railway was the first preserved railway in the world, and 2016 marked the end of their year-long 150th birthday celebrations. It is volunteer-run, headed up by a great team including the irrepressible general manager Tracey Parkinson. I like Tracey. She is smart, funny and determined and she is building a sensible business plan for this joyful little steam railway to flourish through the coming years. At the main terminus of the railway, Wharf, is a good sized model railway: the Llechfan Garden Railway, down in a sleepy, damp hollow missed by most casual visitors. Llechfan had been given a new lease of life and an awful lot of love by my friend Kes and a brilliantly good fun band of garden railway enthusiasts.
Kes is a kind and lovely lady. She also happens to be the daughter of the late Peter Jones, who not only had a fabulously eclectic and delightfully invasive garden railway of his own, Compton Down, but wrote about it and its buildings in the hallowed pages of Railway Modeller magazine over many years. His models of Welsh slate mines and mountain ranges towered way above his neighbours’ fences; the whiffling of live steam in miniature would waft across those tiny ranges, through fog, mist and dappled sunlight with the trundling beat of four-wheeled coaches and mis-matched wagons bouncing along weed-strewn track. Kes also managed to finish of Peter’s unfinished book on model buildings, which is now very popular and very much available to buy. As a child and as a teenager, Peter and I corresponded several times by letter on outdoor model railway ideas, particularly over an A-Level school project that I built elements for (and gained an “A” for, wahey! Thanks Peter) that was planned to be installed at Bekonscot Model Village. Of course, I worked at Bekonscot at that time as I talked about in my last blog post. Later, when Peter died, Kes and I considered briefly whether Bekonscot could host some of buildings but we concluded that they’d be a little incongruous in both scale and material.
Instead, Kes contacted the Talyllyn Railway and they said yes, they’d like Peter’s Compton Down buildings and trains very much indeed. And that they’d fit in beautifully in the sleepy damp hollow that was the Llechfan Garden Railway at the Wharf terminus. And Kes said yes, I like the Talyllyn Railway very much indeed and maybe I should move here and OH MY GOODNESS GRACIOUS ME that man over there is terribly handsome and BOOM fast forward a couple of years and now we find Kes living and working here.
So it was that Kes came here with her buildings, and stayed for the people. One person in particular, really: Steve. They are a joy to see together; a couple brought together by a chance encounter and a mutual love of pootling, tootling, little narrow gauge railways. I hope when she happens upon these words, that Kes doesn’t mind me calling her out for this. I only became properly involved with the Talyllyn Railway one year ago. I came for the trains but I stayed for the people. There is a family of volunteers at the Talyllyn, and they’ve welcomed me into their world: I’m hardly a regular active volunteer but to be welcomed with a cheer when I walk in to the evening staff bar makes me feel like I’m at home. Or perhaps an extra in an episode of Cheers.
So it was a joy that after 23 years of working and writing about model villages, I returned to see Kes and her Compton Down buildings installed at Llechfan several times over 2016. Itself almost a model village now with its fabulous landscaping and growing collection of buildings, had its own model model village built many years previously by Peter Jones – the model village of Phurcombe, built alongside the tiny village’s well – thus known to all as Phurcombe Well. Well.
After Kes and I had fiddled about with some buildings and I spent a couple of weekends happily re-laying out and re-planning out this Welsh Lilliput, we had effectively restored her father’s model model village. So I was asked to celebrate the re-opening and re-dedication of Phurcombe Well. There is still more work to do to restore it, but after our restoration work Llechfan now had its own proper, expanded model model village. It also now has some super-trimmed bonsai-style miniature planting – all of which I brought up one day on the train from London.
Another thing that was there for the opening was something unique. Whilst I had been back in London I had decided it was time to build and donate a model, model, model village.
I couldn’t stop, though. If you look closely, there is indeed a model, model, model model village. And inside a tiny dot: the world’s only model model model model model village! A model X5 village. That’s one iteration more than any other model village has – anywhere in the world. Yes, it’s just a dot. A tiny, approximated model.
Llechfan’s model model village now has probably the world’s smallest model model garden railway, too: I built it using T Gauge (1:144 scale) components and I’m assured that 6 months on it is working well on special gala days. Hurrah!
One of my dearest friends, Bekonscot’s chief mechanical engineer and a childhood volunteer of the Talyllyn, Mervyn Hill, was there that June day to represent Bekonscot, along with a crowd of 1:15 scale Bekonscot carved people, and a final 1:15 scale Bekonscot person possessing a strong likeness to the Talyllyn Railway Society’s founder (and one of my lifelong heroes) Tom Rolt. And of course, a substantial amount of miniature bunting. Every party needs bunting.
So, it was a true delight, an unexpected honour and a privilege never to be repeated, that with a pair of giant scissors I was allowed to cut the tiny ribbon and give three cheers for everybody who continues to make Llechfan Garden Railway and the Talyllyn Railway the “Railway with a Heart of Gold”.
And with that, a circle of miniature history was completed. The oldest model village gave birth to the smallest, the newest; now alive and growing at the world’s first preserved railway. More than one or two tears were shed in that crowd. Little steam and battery locomotives chuffed and footled around Llechfan all weekend; children flocked down to see this new wonder, happily re-adjusting the little model people adding their own stories and narratives. It was a lovely day.
Thank you for reading: I hope you visit the Talyllyn Railway for the trains, but stay and get to know the people. You’ll be glad that you did. I’ll see you there.
In the meantime, please do join me on my miniature adventures on Twitter!