A Day Out: Bekonscot Model Village

Sunday, May 11, 2014

I'm pretty sure I've still got things to say about Russia, but for now it's a Bank Holiday weekend and the weather is uncharacteristically warm and dry (locals will understand that a entire Bank Holiday Weekend that is NOT punctuated by untimely rain showers is a rare and precious thing) and I had the cutest, bloggiest thing drop into my lap, so today it’s all aboard for Bekonscot Model Village.

Bekonscot Model Village.  It does exactly what it says on the tin - it's a model of a village.  
A tiny little world of the most exquisite Englishness imaginable.

It was a kind of charmed day.  As I said, the weather was perfect.  And the train to Beaconsfield (BECKons-field), the real town in which tiny Bekonscot is located, leaves from Marylebone Station, which is a pleasant journey on one bus from Brixton.  And then when I arrived at the station, just as I was taking in the unpleasantly long queue for the ticket machines, a railway agent approached and siphoned off a few of us, allowing me to skip the queue and make it to the train that was leaving, fortuitously, in 5 minutes.  Then I found a front-facing window seat in the Quiet Car and opened up a fresh crossword and watched as the English countryside rolled past the window and was really, really content.

There’s a short walk from the station to the model village, which is set, oddly, on a residential street.  This is because the village is the work of one Roland Callingham, and the whole thing is set on the grounds of his former home.  A model railroad enthusiast, Callingham was apparently forced to move his extensive layout (For Grampy and Ted: Gauge 1) out of the house and into the garden when his wife declared, “Either the railroad goes outside or you do!” Working alongside his staff (the gardener, cook, maid and chauffeur… rough life!) they began to create a setting for the trains, which gradually grew into such an attraction for guests of the house that the swimming pool was turned into a lake and the surrounding rockery into undulating hills.  The village continued to expand to its present 1.5 acre size, though surrounding properties on all size prevent any increase in the overall area.  Though originally conceived as a private folly for Callingham and his friends, word of Bekonscot soon got around and they began taking donations from visitors in 1930.  It continues to donate all proceeds to various charities and to date it has collected about 5.5 millions pounds (At £9.50 per head for adults, that's not such a stretch).  And it remains to this day, the oldest model village in the world.

The aforementioned lake, now transformed into the seafront town of Southpool, complete with lighthouse, Yacht Club and of course, the RNLI.

Built at 1:12 scale, the detail and charm of the place is impressive.  It now comprises six individual towns linked by an impressive amount of rail track, all set in a 1930s time warp that makes it even more appealing.  Vintage bi-planes sit on the grass outside the airport, steam engines chug along the rails, and the dairyman still delivers in a hand-drawn cart.  It's hopelessly engrossing.

Naturally Bekonscot is hugely popular with kids, mostly the under-6 set it seems.  I was a bit nervous, expecting that on a Bank Holiday Sunday it would be a screaming nightmare of over-excited, cranky, screaming children, 10-15% of whom might be in full melt-down at any time. In fact, there were a lot of kids with parents and grandparents (I think I may have been the only person there alone, which made me feel slightly creepy).  Luckily, there was almost none of the screamy horribleness that make one want to cringe and flee.  It seems the tiny village is beguiling enough that most everyone - kids and adults alike - was just content to wander and look and point out new little discoveries and watch for the next train to trundle past and be pleasant and happy.  I left when it was starting to get a bit too crowded on the loop of narrow paths that meanders past each part of the village, but even then people were polite and patient and it was all just... nice.

People being... just nice.

The railway - the original reason for Bekonscot's existence - really is extensive.  Apparently covering 10 scale miles, the trains run constantly - through tunnels, over bridges, and into and out of stations.  It's the trains that the kids seem to love to most.  There's even a video taken from the "driver's eye view" of a train making the rounds of the whole site, which gives you a really nice look at the scale of the place.  (And for those interested in more details about the railroad in particular - Grampy and Ted, this is for you - here's the track layout and more details about signal boxes and relay cabinets and such.)

The industry of the tiny people of Bekonscot is absorbing.  There's a furniture plant, coal mine, dairy farm, oast house, cement works, hospital, nunnery with garden, and several schools, hotels, churches, markets and pubs.  There are fishermen, farmers, removals men, estate agents, and builders at work on a partly finished house.  The village has a windmill and a watermill.  And the members of the Bekonscot Fire Brigade have been battling a fire in the thatched roof of a cottage more or less forever.  There are even three castles (one pleasingly ruined and crumbly, open to visitors for 2d (Adults) and 1d (Children) according to the sign).

The roof of the burning building periodically emits puffs of smoke!

Neither do the Lilliputians lack for recreational activities; the place is positively bursting with wholesome diversions of every sort.  A game of cricket is underway, along with football, rugby, field hockey and net ball.  There's tennis, croquet, and bowls at the Country Club. There are sheepdog trials, horse racing, equestrian, canoeing, rowing, yachting and sailing, fox hunting, golf, polo, archery, and netball.  The smallest of the residents take part in scout camps and dance around maypoles.  And Bekonscotians of all sizes are depicted relaxing on the beach, camping out in miniature caravans, attending concerts at the pavillion on the pier, strolling through a remarkably well-stocked zoo, going to the circus, riding in cable cars, floating narrowboats through a set of locks in a canal, and picnicing alongside oddly outsized bluebells and shrubbery. They can even get lost in a hedge maze.

And there's an extensive country fair with spinning ferris wheels

And of course, inevitably... Morris Dancing

My very favourite discovery at Bekonscot was the depiction of an industrious group of archeologists camped out across the path from the coal mine, busily excavating what looked like a Roman villa, complete with mosaic floor and the remains of the caldarium.  They're also just down the hill from a giant (well, relatively speaking) prehistoric chalk outline of a horse on a hillside.  It's just really clever.


There's a very whimsical nature to the whole thing, reinforced by the propensity to plaster the place with the worst possible puns.  The grocer is Chris P. Lettis and the baker is Ivan Huven.

Screen Shot 2014-05-04 at 10.48.53 pm
It really pays to look closely

It's clear why many people come back again and again; first as children, then bringing children of their own.  The place is supremely nostalgic.  Apparently during the 80 year evolution of the village more modern buildings began to be created, including some concrete monstrosity sort of things.  Happily, good sense prevailed and a strict 1930s time frame was applied, which is a large part of the charm of the place.

Of course there are the usual other attractions - a tea room, a gift shop, an adventure playground, and a larger gauge railway you can ride for £1 a head.  You can also wander past the workshops where models are built and maintained, which I thought was great.  They should have those open on the weekends so you can see the staff and volunteers building whatever new thing is coming.  I even caught a glimpse of the Spring 2014 To Do List, which was mostly crossed off (well done gang) and included such tasks as "Hardware Shop - secure window-box" and "Flamingo Pool - paint perimeter".  Great.

When I'd had my fill, I left and decided to walk into the Old Town of Beaconsfield for a nice cup of coffee and lunch, which promised to be only a 20 minute walk.  Sadly, though much of the old town has a look eerily similar to that of Bekonscot, it's all Carphone Warehouses and Pizza Express and charity shops and high-end kitchen decor places, with a large round-about and 4 lanes of traffic cutting right down the main road.  I was hoping to find a nice local place (perhaps called T.N. Kayks) where I could relax and recharge before seeking the train home. Alas, I had to settle for a ham and cheese toastie at Costa Coffee.  But by then my mood was good enough that even that was pleasant, and I spent the 20-minute wait for the train back to London relaxing on a bench on the platform in the bright sun reading a new book.  All in all, an excellently bloggy day and the kind of thing I've missed very very much.

P.S.  There are a ton more photos over at Flickr - Bekonscot is a magnificently photogenic place, especially on a sunny day, and I taxed my camera to the point where both batteries died.  Check it out.

1 Comment:

Unknown said...

Love it.
I watched the video of the train and the visitors looked like they were giants 100 feet tall like in a Godzilla movie. Fun.

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