A Novice’s Story

By Tony Riley

As a ten-year-old it was worth getting a telling off from my Mum for arriving home late covered in sooty smuts. The usual’ reason was that I had been standing on the narrow footbridge which spanned the four tracks of the Midland main line as it approached Tamworth station. Thundering towards me from either direction would come one of Sir William Stanier ‘s masterpieces or occasionally a ‘new’ Britannia. Spotted first at a great distance, getting bigger by the second, at speeds between eighty and ninety miles an hour they swayed alarmingly as if about to jump off the tracks. Soon they were close enough to read the headboard, Royal Scot, Midday Scot, Caledonian et al. With luck a final clear sighting to get the smoke box door number before suddenly one would be engulfed in the hot sooty chimney blasted exhaust of steam, smoke and subtle overtones of hot oil as the locomotive passed beneath drawing twelve to fifteen swaying coaches. That is where my model railway seed was planted.

Fifty-two years later one of my retirement decisions was to have a model railway. Knowing nothing I forged ahead with enthusiasm. At a sensible distance from the house I built a twenty feet by ten feet shed fully insulated and double glazed with mains electricity laid on by a professional. Around the walls I built a baseboard, leaving three to four feet down the middle. Then I packed in as much track as I could. I used Peco code 100 with insulfog turnouts and lots of isolated sections. The control board with switches for the sections and screw heads for the points control has over 350 soldered connections. There is over a kilometer of wire running under the baseboards. To run on the tracks I bought lots of locomotives, coaches, wagons, tankers and guards vans. Then I stopped, sat myself down with a pint or three of home brew, and had a good think!

I had created a large toy train set when what I really wanted was a model railway. What is the difference?

My personal answer is:- It’s the story it tells that makes a model railway. A train set relies on the observer’s imagination to create a story; a model railway has trains set in time and space, it has a context. The story might be a ‘rivet accurate’ documentary, an historical novel with author’s license, or a fantasy creation. The choice is down to the modeler’s taste and abilities. The observer reads the story that has been created and if the work is good enough sees what the maker intended.

Once I accepted that idea I discovered the size of my own ignorance, how much there is to learn and to do and you realise that model railwaying should carry a health warning. Teaching old dogs new tricks takes lots and lots of time, and can absorb interest to the exclusion of all else.

I’d never tried metal kit building before so an Alan Gibson Jinty is a real challenge that is a ‘work in progress’. Landscape sketching and painting was something I did at school so the back scene is a real challenge; another ‘work in progress’. Luckily my wife has skillfully taken to constructing the buildings, embellishing and modifying where necessary the basic Metcalfe, Superquick and Prototype kits. The groundworks to place the buildings in situ is another ‘work in progress’. I have watched trees being made at York M.R. Exhibition. It was made to look really easy so I expect to be struggling with those before too long. I’ve made some progress detailing RTR locomotives particularly to widen the range of Stanier Pacifics. Still other loco, rolling stock, signalling etc. tasks lie ahead. I could go on listing the challenges the novice railway modeller faces but I don’t think I have found them all yet.

Currently my brick wall is Operations. How many train movements of all kinds were there on Tamworth Low Level on a typical day in the late 50s? What were they? Is that information available to novices if so how do I get it? Of course I need it to make the context convincing so that when it is all finished my ‘historical novel with license’ will say “One day in the 1950s a boy stood on a footbridge over the mainline tracks and was delighted to see……”

This article was first published in the Winter 2006 Double O Gauge Association Journal
All Material copyright the Double O Gauge Association 2004