PEOPLE sometimes ask railway modellers why they spend countless thousands of hours creating miniature landscapes and running miniature trains over them.
If you think about it, the question’s a bit silly – and maybe a bit rude. After all, hardly anybody buttonholes a painter or sculptor and demands: “Oi! Why do you bother?” Not unless the painter or sculptor in question is a Turner Prize nominee, anyway.
I still asked Swindon Model Railway Club member Ian Burbidge, though, and he told me: “It’s like 3D painting with a central focus point that moves.
“Some people paint, some people draw. I guess doing this is my artistic expression. It’s actually quite a diverse hobby.
“You need to know a little bit about woodworking, about painting, about electronics. You need to be able to appreciate what you see in the countryside and what you see around you if you’re going to recreate it.
“There’s research to do as well.”
Layouts begin life as sections of track plus ready-made landscape features from model shops or home-made confections of chicken wire, polystyrene and plaster. Details are gradually added and the final result is often something that wouldn’t look out of place in a museum.
The Swindon club was founded in 1953, and met for many years in rooms beneath railway arches in London Road before moving to its base at the Tadpole Lane HQ of the Swindon and Cricklade Railway.
There are currently eight members, who meet to pool skills, swap friendly banter and in some cases create layouts that are too ambitious to be kept in a normal-sized home.
Ian, a 42-year-old accountant who lives in Old Walcot, has been an enthusiast since he was six or seven years old. His home layouts include a garden railway and his club layout is called the Cajon Pass, a rugged American desert landscape like something from a country and western song.
“It’s based on the broad area between California and Arizona,” said Ian.
Before creating the layout he visited the region to soak up its atmosphere. “It’s where the Santa Fe and Union Pacific come out of the LA basin and come through the mountains to get to the plateau of Arizona and Nevada.”
The accuracy and attention to detail make viewing the layout a sometimes vertigo-inducing experience, and bending for a closer look plays similar tricks on the mind to hitting the Google Earth zoom button too quickly – with the added bonus of the Cajon Pass being in three dimensions.
Another member who has looked to the other side of the Atlantic for inspiration is Alf Shaw from Churchward, a dad and granddad whose career saw him tackle everything from bar management to assembling Harrier and Tornado undercarriages at Plessey.
Aged 81 and with the energy of somebody a good couple of decades younger, he’s been a model railway enthusiast since building a layout for his infant son – who is now 54.
His main club layout is an astonishingly detailed rendition of a Canadian logging station.
Workers a centimetre high toil in forests and load railway wagons with timber, while horses graze in a paddock overlooking the scene.
“It keeps you young, this does,” he said. “It keeps you mentally active. You learn as you go along.”
At the other end of the age scale is 23-year-old John Stephens, a garden centre worker who lives in Stroud.
He’s currently adding new electronics to a layout depicting a British station of perhaps 40 years ago. Technological advances mean enthusiasts can add sound effects and lights. Some even mount tiny cameras on locos, producing driver’s eye views. Although a fan of computer games, he’s also a staunch advocate for flesh-and blood hobbies. “With this,” he said, “you can take some of the things from the virtual world into the real one.” The club has a website at www.modrail.org.uk and welcomes new members.