Category Archives: Real railways

Something different on the high street

While wandering around Deptford the other week, I came across something that might be of interest to modellers:

It’s a café made out of an old coach. Not even a buffet car, just a regular BR composite coach on a length of track. I’m told the lemon drizzle cake is very good.

Externally, there are only a few differences from a standard passenger coach. A ventilation duct has been installed on top and a set of stairs leads up to the entrance. And, of course, there’s that livery. One might charitably describe it as “challenging,” but there’s no doubt that it catches the eye. You may wish for something simpler, although I understand a number of US firms produce graffiti decals. Don’t forget to paint over the kitchen windows.

The coach sits at right angles to the high street behind a fence in what appears to be a former school playground. At weekends, market stalls are set up here. If you’d like to see it for yourself, take the train to Deptford Bridge (which, I’m told, is the oldest railway station in London), come out of the station, turn right and it’s just a minute or two up the road.

It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s definitely something different for the modern image urban modeller.


The White Stuff

Well, folks, as you’ve no doubt already realised, the UK is gripped by snow. As ever, we can expect transport difficulties and suchlike fun. Yr. Humble Chronicler, paid as he is by the hour, basically has to go into work chiz chiz.

A Collett 0-6-0 shows us how it's done.

However, in the meantime, here’s a nostalgic look at snow on British Railways circa 1963 – It’s a narration-free, slightly artsy collection of documentary footage set to a delightfully ’60s soundtrack.

57xx pannier and Toad brake van finish clearing the line.

As you might imagine, there’s plenty of snow-clearing footage, mostly on the Western Region as far as I can see. Other highlights include some prestigious diesel services featuring a Warship, a Western and the Blue Pullman (all of which was probably, again, filmed on the Western Region). The filmmaker has spliced in some old footage of LMS engines for variety and there are lots of evocative shots of day-to-day operation in what are now termed “adverse weather conditions.” Also for some reason we are treated to film of a gentleman eating his breakfast. All in all, a great resource for anyone planning a snow-set railway.

Seriously, who is this guy?

I’ve often thought I’d like to do a snow-based steam-era railway. It offers a lot of potential for unusual operations. For instance, the snowplough workings that you see in the film would be a good short train to model. 0-6-0s were preferred due to the fact that all their weight was concentrated on the driving wheels, making them both powerful and stable – you could hit those drifts at a heck of a speed, and they might not be willing to move. It was common, as you can see in the film, to pair an engine with a tool van or brake van, which I presume carried a crew in case they ran into trouble. It was also common for two locomotives to be coupled back-to-back, sometimes with the tool van between them.

There are also lots of other interesting operating possibilities – double lines singled, diverted express trains, breakdown trains called out to derailments. Perhaps you could even have a whole train stuck in the snow, being dug out. I’ve seen footage of this at the National Railway Museum, and apparently the way to free up frozen motion was to wrap oily rags around it and set it on fire (good luck recreating that). Even so, it might take days to get the train out.
I’ll leave you with a photo from New Year’s Day 2009. Not exactly in period, but this is what the water tower at Didcot looked like that day:

The Reign of Terrier

Well, the docklands layout now has a locomotive. I don’t normally buy locomotives specifically for layouts, more the other way round – I build layouts in order to give locomotives somewhere to run.

IMG_1553But, well, I rather like the London, Brighton and South Coast ‘Terriers’, and I saw a second-hand one going cheap on a stall at a jumble sale, so policy be damned.

The use of a Terrier (or A1X, if we’re going to be pedantic) is, of course, entirely justified on an East London layout – the LBSC actually built these delightful engines to work passenger trains on their lines in South East London. They were nippy little engines, and more than capable of the work they were given to do. They were equally capable of goods and shunting work, and their small size and light weight made them perfect for branch and light railway work. So good at their jobs were they that they lasted in service from the 1870s through to the 1960s, often passing through more than one owner – where the LBSC or Southern Railway didn’t want them, someone else generally did. Some even ended up back with the Southern after the lines they had been sold to were taken over.

The engine in the photo is Brighton, an engine that had something of an adventurous life. It was a showtrain of sorts, winning a gold medal at the 1878 Exposision Universelle in Paris and, in a moment to gladden the heart of any red-blooded Englishman, set a speed record of 50mph on the Chemins de Fer de l’Ouest. It went to the Isle of Wight Central Railway in 1902. On withdrawal, it was a seaside attraction at Butlin’s holiday camp at Pwllheli, which frankly sounds like a fate worse than death. Fortunately, the engine was saved by the Isle of Wight Steam Railway and now lives there under its Wight identity of Newport, number W11.

All of which rather suggests that it shouldn’t be in the East End during BR days. Fortunately, there’s a little phrase we modellers like to use, which is “might have been”. J E Connor, in his book Stepney’s Own Railway, notes that there was at one time a plan to build a link between the East London Railway and the London and Blackwall Railway at Shadwell. The East London Railway used Marc Brunel’s tunnel under the Thames to provide a link between the North and South sides of the docks in East London. It was operated by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, the Metropolitan Railway, the Metropolitan District Railway, the South Eastern Railway, the Great Eastern Railway – and the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. Connor suggests that enthusiasm for this project was the reason for Terriers being built with the names Stepney, Fenchurch, Minories, Shadwell, Millwall, Poplar and Blackwall. The Terriers were named after places on or near LBSC lines (which apparently caused Victorian travellers a lot of confusion, as they mistook the name of the engine for the destination of the train), but those seven places were all along the London and Blackwall Railway.

So I’m gonna go right ahead and say that, in the universe where my railway is set, that link actually was built. The Terriers would have been ideal motive power for the dock lines, as the swing bridges carried a severe weight restriction. They already worked through the Thames Tunnel, that’s why they were fitted with condensing equipment, so it’s no stretch to suggest that they would have been regular performers on such a link.

The docks give me an excuse for all sorts of (small) motive power, justifying the use of engines from the London Midland, Eastern and Southern Regions, although I don’t intend to restrict myself to BR days. I could also bring in the Port of London Authority’s locos and stock, as well as any number of industrial shunters.

Yes, I think this is going to work out just fine.

Why “Terriers?”

Ever wondered how these engines got their nicknames? The most popular suggestions are that they’re very small compared to most locomotives, and they have a distinctive exhaust “bark” when working hard (apparently due to their Westinghouse brake pumps). J E Connor adds another suggestion – because the A1 class worked through the Thames tunnel, they spent much of their time underground. Like, yes, a terrier hunting rats.

Further Reading – The Terrier Trust. An informative and informal site with lots of interesting articles. – The Southern E-Group is, to my mind, the best online resource for enthusiasts of the Southern Railway, its constituents and successors. They have no less than twelve lavishly-illustrated pages on Stroudley’s little friends.

Bricking It

WARNING: This entry takes a while to get to the point. You may want to scroll down to where there are pictures. I know I would.

As you may have gathered from previous entries, I’m not exactly what you’d call a rivet counter. I’m more of the Impressionist school of modeller, in that I’d rather create something that feels right than something that’s precisely accurate. Put it this way – Hornby Dublo, to me, often seems more “real” than finescale stuff because it has a real weight and momentum to it, despite the fact that the detail is often laughable by modern standards.

Similarly, my favourite layouts are often the ones where there’s less attention to detail, where the builder has shunned conventional accuracy to create something genuinely different. Quite often, these are created by people who are new to the hobby. I recall British Railway Modelling published articles on Midge Grassing’s Sancliffe Junction some years back, a layout created using some unconventional scenic techniques which, as a result, really stood out. See for some photos. I also enjoyed Model Rail‘s recent article on artist David Shepherd’s home layout, built according to the philosophy that “‘it’s my railway and I can do what I bloody well want with it'” (to quote the article). Even Allan Downes, who has been wowing us with his buildings and scenery for decades, admits that he doesn’t worry about getting things dead on, provided they look like what they’re supposed to.

However, this philosophy doesn’t necessarily mean that you can get away with anything at all, as I discovered while researching my current project My layout is set in the East End of London, and one of the things I wanted to include was track on more than one level – a characteristic of railways in East London is that they are carried on viaducts. My initial thought was that I could just get away with weathering Hornby’s standard single-arch road bridge, which is already brick red.

brid1I mean, bricks is bricks, right? It turns out not. See, my research, which largely consisted of wandering around the East End with a camera looking suspicious, showed that brick viaducts in the East End are yellow.

This, according to people who know these things, is because the bricks were made in Kent, where the clay is low in iron. Anyway, what this meant in practical terms was that I was completely wrong. I could still use red brick – there are red buildings in East London – but yellow would be better for creating the feel of the area.

Yellow brick viaduct, East London, apparently in the middle of an atomic explosion.

Yellow brick viaduct, East London, apparently in the middle of an atomic explosion.

And so I set to work with various shades of brown and yellow. In addition to the fact that the colour was wrong, it was also clear that I was going to have to do quite a lot of weathering.

For the base coat, I used Games Workshop’s ‘Bubonic Brown’  (are buboes yellowy-brown?). Then I went over with several layers of ink and thin, grey-brown paint. This adds depth to the basecoat, as well as bringing the colour closer to what I was aiming for.

One technique I used was to apply slightly darker paint to areas such as the underside of the arch and below ledges – areas that, on the real thing, are in shadow. This is because, with the best will in the world, you can’t scale the actions of light and shade down. Therefore, in this scale, shadows look a bit feeble unless you give them a helping hand.

Here’s the result, as compared with an unpainted bridge.

brid2It’s not perfect, I’ll admit. It’ll need several more layers of paint before it achieves the old-and-dirty look I’m aiming for. But it’s a massive improvement over the out-of-the-box road bridge, and now looks like it might actually be made of bricks.

Incidentally, I took several close-up photos of brick and concrete, which I will bore you with in a future entry.

Minories Report

I mentioned in my last post that I’m a great enthusiast for the joys of research. So, when planning my new layout set in the East End, what better way to research it than to actually get out there?

I started out in Shadwell, taking the Docklands Light Railway. I’m a big fan of the DLR, because it’s simultaneously very modern and very historic. It utilises a lot of the old infrastructure of lines long since closed. For instance, here it runs on the viaducts of the old London and Blackwall Railway. These were very characteristic of railways in West London, where gravelly soil made tunnelling difficult.

I thought this was the old station building. Wikipedia begs to differ.
I thought this was the old station building. Wikipedia begs to differ.

Further East, the railway has been built on new concrete flyovers. At West India Dock, there’s a veritable spaghetti junction of lines passing over and under each other as the trains try to figure out which way they’re going. From here, it’s a short walk back to Tower Gateway, following the route of the line.

minories station

The picture above was taken just short of Tower Gateway, and shows both the original London and Blackwall Railway viaduct and the later Midland Railway goods station building – this line was used by the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway and the North London Railway, both of which ran into the L&BR’s Fenchurch Street terminus. The goods station had a roof back in the 1980s, and now forms part of a car park. Car parks have little respect for history.

"You know, I don't believe this train goes to Poplar at all."

"You know, I don't believe this train goes to Poplar at all."

Above is pictured another historic feature of interest. One of the selling points used by the builders of the L&BR, or the Commercial Railway as it was known in those early days, was that by putting the railway on a viaduct, the arches could be converted into houses or shops – a nice little moneyspinner, and one in the eye for the rival scheme supported by George and Robert Stephenson for a railway built in a cutting. One slightly unexpected by-product of this was that when the lines were closed, they couldn’t demolish the viaducts, being as how they were occupied. So as a result, you’ll get long stretches of overgrown, trackless viaduct which suddenly end at the road.

You probably can't read that street sign.

You probably can't read that street sign.

This photo shows the area the line runs into – Fenchurch Street on the main line and Tower Gateway on the DLR. The reason I’ve taken a photo of this particular bridge is because it’s a significant place for modellers. This street is, in fact, the original Minories.minories2

Minories, in model railway terms, is a layout plan by the late, great Cyril Freezer for a compact city terminus station. See for a tribute to Cyril and a reproduction of Minories (along with some of his other well-known plans). The layout doesn’t look much like the real Minories – it was actually inspired by Liverpool Street. But as Cyril was an East London boy, he would almost certainly have been familiar with the area.

The real Minories was doomed from the start. As I said above, the L&BR was originally known as the Commercial Railway, for the simple reason that it didn’t actually enter the City of London itself. They had to settle for Minories, a short distance from the Tower of London, which opened from 1840. It was only the following year that an extension was completed to Fenchurch Street. It wasn’t a long extension, but it did give the Commercial Railway that all-important presence in the City – the only line at the time to have a station in what was then considered Central London. Minories was immediately demoted to the poor relation. It was too close to Fenchurch Street to prosper, and in 1853 it was closed entirely and converted into a goods yard for the newer terminus.

Minories Station. The L&BR was originally cable-hauled, hence the lack of locomotives in this picture.

Minories Station. The L&BR was originally cable-hauled, hence the lack of locomotives in this picture.

That, by the way, is what became the Midland Railway goods station shown above.

Minories wasn’t gone for good, though. With the decline of goods traffic on British Railways (thanks again, Beeching), the goods station was abandoned. Fast forward to the 1980s, and the Docklands Light Railway was looking for a site for its western terminus. Well, here was a ready-made terminus site, just a couple of minutes’ walk from BR’s Fenchurch Street and London Underground’s Tower Hill. So it was that Minories had the last laugh – under the new name of Tower Gateway.

Further Reading – Telegraph obituary for Cyril Freezer, briefly touching on Minories and his East End childhood. – A literal version of Minories, using an imaginary extension of the Great Northern Railway.

Anachronism Stew

One of the things I enjoy most about this hobby is the research side. Early on in the planning stage, I like to get out there and get some reference material. Not just on the railway aspect of things, but the scenery, the buildings, even the people. It’s no good ensuring that your 1923 locomotive is pulling the correct 1923 stock if the figures are dressed in 1940s fashions, for instance.

But then again, sometimes you get a perfectly legitimate reason to get a bit silly with the scenic details. For instance, today, while I was walking through St Pancras Station, I came across this:

IMG_1256It’s that staple of the steam era country station, the milk churn. Specifically, four of them being used to advertise a promotion on dairy goods, smack bang in the middle of a station that’s come to symbolise the future of rail travel in Britain. Incidentally, there were also displays for bread (using flour sacks), fish (nets) and fruit (crates). So you can, perfectly legitimately, be completely random with your accessories.

IMG_0193Or how about this on the right? There are several of these old GWR benches in what was once Windsor & Eton Central Station. Most of this grand station, famous for its royal connections, has now been turned into a shopping centre. The railway is limited to a single platform with a shuttle service to Slough, hidden away at the back. But even if there were no longer royal trains, the owners weren’t going to let this illustrious history go, and so the shops are largely housed in original station buildings and, as you see here, they’ve salvaged several GWR station benches. Coopercraft produce these in OO scale.

Windsor also houses what might be the biggest anachronism of all – a locomotive that was cut up in 1912. Or at least, a replica thereof. The locomotive in question is The Queen, a Great Western ‘Achilles’ class and the non-working replica was built for the Royalty and Railways exhibition. The tender was sadly scrapped (although parts have been saved by the Bluebell Railway for their new ‘Brighton Atlantic’ – the tender originated with the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway).

IMG_0192This is a terrible photo – I was on my way to a dinner party, so the engine was snapped in the evening. Anyway, despite my appalling photo, this does give you a legitimate excuse to put historic and even non-existent locos on a modern image layout. If you want this particular locomotive, both Triang and Hornby have produced the ‘Achilles’ class and it’s available fairly readily second-hand.

These are just three examples. Plenty of stations up and down the country – not just those directly linked to preserved railways – can boast features from the steam age. Whether they were deliberately put there or simply left over, it’s easy enough to find an excuse to have more-or-less any historic feature on your modern layout. There is, as they say, a prototype for everything.


I think one of the most controversial models in Hornby’s range must surely be their four-wheeled coaches. If you don’t know the ones I mean, I’m talking about these:

IMG_1049They’ve been in the range since the 1970s and have been produced in countless variations, from Somerset and Dorset livery to Departmental yellow, from Southern malachite to Annie and Clarabel. A heck of a lot of railways have at least one, and quite possibly several (Yr. Humble Chronicler has lost count of his own).

The thing is, in their own quiet way, these things seem to spark quite a lot of debate. Many modellers, obviously, have no problem with them. Some would like them better if Hornby also produced a brake coach to go with them. And then there are those who hate them with a passion. The problem is that they’re freelance. As far as anyone can tell, there are no coaches like this out in the real world. These must surely be the last freelance models in the main Hornby range. The critics say that they would prefer it if Hornby produced four-wheelers based on real prototypes.

The question I’d then ask is, which prototypes? Lots of the pre-Grouping railways had coaches similar to this. The difficulty faced by Hornby if they decided to tool up for a more realistic four-wheeler is finding one that would sell in sufficient quantities to justify the expense.

For me, the four-wheeler is just fine. They may not be perfect, but on the other hand, they’re cheap and they at least look like a typical branch line/light railway coach, even if it’s not a specific one. There are alternatives if you don’t like them – a few companies make etched kits of specific four-wheelers. Ratio have for a long time produced a range of Great Western coaches and Smallbrook Studio have recently introduced London, Brighton and South Coast Railway coaches. Smallbrook specialise in Isle of Wight stock in their 4mm/foot range, and due to loading gauge restrictions, the Isle of Wight was using Victorian stock long after it had been retired elsewhere on the Southern Railway.

All this is a rambling precursor to the main point of this post, which is the thing I found at Upminster Depot, which is having an open weekend.

I call it "Clarabel".

I call it "Clarabel".

This is a four-wheeled coach of the Metropolitan District Railway, predecessor of the modern District Line. It has to be said, it does bear a fair resemblance to the Hornby four-wheeler. There are a few differences, true, but otherwise I’d say it’s not a bad likeness.

Unfortunately, the chances of Hornby doing this in District livery are slim to nil. Still, a boy can dream…