Sunday, 15 May 2016

Trackside dreams: The Vale and model railways

The Priory and Godfreys – Vale Scene - © Tony Wright
The landscapes and buildings of the Vale have been captured in many different ways. Not surprisingly, there is a long tradition of painting and photographing its views. But in this post I want to look at a more unusual way in which people have tried to represent the area – model railways.

The best known example of this is the Vale Scene at Pendon Museum in Long Wittenham . This is centred on a fictional Vale village ‘Pendon Parva’ and attempts to represent an idealised version of the landscape as it was in the 1930s. As an archaeologist, I have a great fondness for the loving rendered hillfort. Although, it is at heart a railway layout, as much thought has been put into representing the landscape and, in particular, the historic buildings of the Vale, as the railway itself. Nearly all the buildings shown are based on actual building that stood or stand in the area.

Letcombe Cottage – Vale Scene © Stephen Williams
The model itself has a fascinating history – it has its origins with the modelling work of Roye England, who arrived in England from Australia in the 1920s. Already deeply involved in railway modelling, he spent time living in Swindon, close to the western end of the Vale, and he soon fell in love with the landscape and buildings. His first attempts at modelling the buildings began in the 1930s, and after a pause due to the war, he set up in Long Wittenham  and established what became the Pendon Modern Railway Museum in the 1950s. He expanded into new premises in the 1970s and work began on what eventually became the Vale Scene – although he died in 1995, work on the scene continues.

It’s a beautiful and committed piece of work- it’s steeped in a love for a pre-lapsarian landscape and for the railways. I love the way in which it’s still, and likely always will be, a work in progress. There is something profoundly meditative about model buildings. This kind of small-scale act of creation is something I have only tinkered round the edges with, but I can see how it draws people in. There is an intriguing mix of an insistence on accuracy when it comes to the rolling stock and architectural detailing, but it is all set in a fictional condensed countryside setting, which aims to represent all facets of the Vale, from the Downs with their hillforts and strip lynchets to the pasture and arable of the vale itself. Of course, it is set in late summer, with the crops ripe unto harvest and the chalk tracks at their dustiest. In its own way, the model is part of that distinctly English topographic recording tradition, which has its roots in the chorographic writing of the 17th and 18th century, and in the 1930s and 1940s, when the idea of the Vale Scene was germinating, materialised in the form of the Recording Britain Project and the National Buildings Record. Indeed, the Vale Scene was initially intended to capture a landscape and way of life that was seen by Roye England to be under threat ; his first model was the pub, the Calley Arms in Wanborough, which was being renovated and updated.

Kingston Lisle - Corfe Castle Line- Ormesby Hall
In its own right, the Vale Scene, indeed the entire Pendon Museum, is wonderful and worthy of a blog entry. You can imagine my surprise though when I stumbled across a second public model railway layout which contained model buildings based on real structures in the Vale. I chanced upon it when I was visiting Ormesby Hall, a National Trust property in Middlesborough. I’d taken the family to visit because it was home of the Pennyman family, who I had an interest in due to their work on social relief schemes in the 1930s, so I wasn’t remotely thinking about the Vale or model railways. However, at the end of the usual tramp round drawing rooms and halls, it was a pleasant surprise to come upon a series of model railway layouts run by Ormesby Hall Model Railway Group. One (Pilmoor Junction) was based on the East Coast mainline (bah, I’ve never liked the LNER…), the other was clearly a southern landscape and was in fact based broadly on the branch line from Wareham to Swanage. However, when looking at it more closely, I realised that some of the buildings were from elsewhere. Indeed, it turns out that although the man who created the model, Mr Ron Rising, has set it in Dorset, it also contained model buildings based on real examples across the south of England, including the Vale. For example, there is lovely set of cottages based on a group in Kingston Lisle (see picture).

There cannot be many parts of the country which have been captured in this form, not once, but twice. There may even be other examples of Vale landscapes and building lurking in lofts and clubhouses elsewhere in the country. Why the Vale should have caught the imagination in this way I am not certain. The originators of the two models, Roye England and Ron Rising, had different relationships between the Vale, one a local, one not so. In both cases though, there is this fascinating juxtaposition of incredible levels of detail (in the Corfe Castle layout all the roof tiles on all the buildings were individually cut out) with a creative mixing and reorganising of these perfect miniatures within semi-fictional landscapes. I find this approach to fascinating as, in some way, it mirrors my own perception and attitude to writing about and exploring the Vale of the White Horse. I want to focus in on little vignettes, case studies and keyhole views of the region’s history,  yet despite my fascination with the detail, I can’t help but set them in a landscape that is probably more my own imagining than reality. The buildings provide the ballast, but the tracks take us somewhere else.

All images of the railway layouts taken from the websites of the relevant organisations - Pendon Museum and Ormesby Hall Model Railway Group

Watercress beds - Letcombe Bassett

Nice piece of rural industrial archaeology here- the watercress beds at Letcombe Bassett. Fallen out of use now, but the concrete blocks forming the beds and leats are still visible on the Letcombe Brook between Letcombe Bassett and Letcombe Regis. Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a native herb and grows in on cold, running water. In the 19th century there was quite a trade in it, with many growers in the south of England sending it up to Covent Garden where it was sold. Elsewhere in Oxfordshire, there were important beds at Ewelme – there were also beds on the down edge at Ramsbury in Wiltshire  The chalk stream at Letcombe was also used for growing cress. I can’t find out much about the chronology of the watercress growing in the village- the beds seem to be shown on the 1st Edition OS map, but are not marked as such. The beds are clearly labelled though from the 1870s. The use of concrete for bunds and channels which can still be seen presumably indicates a phase of 20th century investment. It was still active into the 1970s and several newspaper reports from the time write about the threat posed by the drought of 1976, and I think the beds were still being worked until the 1980s?