“We’re two buttresses and an arch short. No, make that three arches short.” It’s late afternoon, and things are getting tense at the Basingstoke and North Hants Model Railway Society. Robin Gilchrist, a well-built 60-year-old Yorkshireman with a deceptively light touch, hovers over the delicate houses, bridges and track of a once-in-a-lifetime railway layout that’s nearing completion.
Around him, team members are gathered like operating theatre nurses around a surgeon. Gilchrist holds up his hand, and silence falls across the scout hut that is the club’s HQ. “Gentlemen, I’m going to need more parapets.”
It would be easy to poke fun at six middle-aged men, all with varying degrees of hair loss or tummies that long ago took the southern branch line, who have been obsessed, often since childhood, with re-creating large stretches of railway line on a much smaller scale. But railway modelling has its share of glamour. Tom Hanks, Roger Daltrey, Rod Stewart (who had a layout on the cover of US magazine Model Railroader in 2007), Pete Waterman and Neil Young are all enthusiasts, as were Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra and, before them, Buster Keaton.
The Basingstoke club, one of 15 teams from across the UK that are competing in Channel 5’s new six-part show The Great Model Railway Challenge, are good at this. They have displayed at the annual model show at the NEC, Birmingham, and their layouts have featured in Railway Modeller magazine – a bit like winning the FA Cup and the Premier League in consecutive seasons.
The challenge began when the RT team discovered a remarkable series of photographs that had lain unnoticed in our archives for more than half a century. The pictures show goods yards and streets outside London’s Waterloo Station in the early 1950s where a fleet of Radio Times vans has gathered to collect copies of the magazine sent by rail from the printer’s and then distribute them across the capital. It’s a snapshot of a different age. The Queen’s coronation in 1953 was about to become the first truly national broadcast TV event; Radio Times cost 2d [two old pence] and sold more than eight million copies a week (1955 would see record sales of 8,801,895) and the yellow livery of our delivery vans was a familiar part of the landscape.
So, we were naturally intrigued when the club offered to interpret the pictures using not only its modelling expertise, but also the sense of tradition that comes naturally when you’ve been handling replica LMS steam locomotives in the British “N Gauge” scale since you were six years old. We were even more intrigued when they said they could build it in just two days.
Making model railways is a slow business; layouts usually take three years, or even longer. “We’re working on a layout of two railway lines joining in the West Country,” says Clive Essery, a 67-year-old with a white beard who used to put computer systems in Harrier jump jets. “It will probably take ten years before we’re finished.” Perhaps an ambitious undertaking for a man his age? “Well, I’m hoping to see the end of it,” he says. “But the real point of a model railway is the making of it. I’m comfortable with the idea of it living on when I’m not around.”
Essery’s job today is vital. He makes the stream of tea that, along with plates of shortbread biscuits, fuels the team. In fact, the team drinks so much tea that Channel 5 provided them with an urn during filming of the series earlier this year, at the Buckinghamshire country house of the late Sir William McAlpine. McAlpine had his own private railway in the grounds.
A love of trains, perhaps more than any other hobby, attracts devotees from across the social spectrum. Gilchrist is a retired managing director. John Smerdon, a 53-year-old presently cleaning the rails with a glass-fibre rod, delivers “overalls, laundry and workwear to various companies”. That, says Gilchrist, is the beauty of the club. “You could be Little Lord Fauntleroy, it doesn’t matter who you are. When you come through these doors we’ll shake your hand, make you a cup of tea and ask you which bit you’re interested in.”
Although exceptionally welcoming (and the club say they’d love to see new members from any gender or background), there are no women here. “It might be that it’s just something that interests guys more than women,” ponders Peter Thorpe, a 60-year-old who first took up the hobby when he joined his school railway club in 1970, and later came back to modelling after ten years in the merchant marine. “But there’s also the possibility that this is our way of creating things. Women produce children, which we can’t do, and this is a poor substitute for that.”
Railway modelling is a male world and, at the risk of gender stereotyping, many of its attributes – repetitive tinkering, a love of obscure gadgetry and, possibly, a desire to render the world little and therefore controllable – seem to be male ones. I do find myself fascinated by the mini-hopper that Smerdon is running over the rails, a device the size of a matchbox with the very specific purpose of delivering just the right amount of ballast onto a length of track. Then there’s the ballast itself – not just coloured sand, I’m assured, but a specialist product manufactured, marketed and sold as model railway ballast – though I suspect laboratory tests would confirm it’s just coloured sand.
Meanwhile, Gilchrist is taking orders for the chip shop and, on a side bench, Ian Morgan is painting tiny lampposts and human figures. The 62-year-old has been a member since 1988. His speciality is very early period railways, “painting Victorian ladies in their crinolines”. Beside him, Thorpe is creating – from paper – the garage for the front of the layout, and becomes irritated with himself when the roof doesn’t fit. Between attempts I ask him what he gets out of such a frustrating hobby.
“It’s being able to make something, then show people and say, ‘Look what I’ve done.’ Maybe I sound a bit old-school, but people get onto computers and it’s, ‘OK, you’ve done that for three hours, what have you got to show for it? You’ve upset a few electrons.’”
For some, the camaraderie and calm of modelling can be a life-saver. Basingstoke trustee Dave Richards is 65 and spent much of his working life as a police road accidents investigations officer, surveying crash scenes. “For years, you think you’re fine dealing with all the horrible things in life,” he says. “But there comes a point when you think, ‘Actually, if I carry on doing what I’m doing, I’ll go under.’ So, I needed a hobby that would take me away from that.”
It’s early evening now, seven hours since I joined the team. At that point, they had made only the base – a piece of bare plywood propped on trestle tables and bearing a tangle of tiny sleepers and track connected for power. Now, six portions of fish and chips, 11 refills of the glue gun and much fiddling about later, I’m looking at a 3-D version of our original photographs, re-created in enchanting detail. I peer beneath a railway bridge bearing a Radio Times advert, there’s a newsagent’s on a street corner, workmen are digging up the tarmac and a red Routemaster double decker is coming down the road. The last lamppost has been screwed in and the Radio Times delivery vans put in position. We’re ready to turn on the current.
“As soon as that train moves,” says Essery, “everything else will stop. I can’t explain it but a moving model train has a strange power.” Serdon picks up a control box, flicks a switch and, to everyone’s delight, it works. A locomotive comes around the corner pulling carriages. It’s an early autumn weekday in 1951, and the nationwide delivery of Radio Times has begun. Now, have I got 2d on me?
The Great Model Railway Challenge airs on Friday 5th October at 8.00pm on Channel 5
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news