This is a post about model trains and a trip to Margate.
We were driving over to Broadstairs on the Kent coast to have a cup of tea with Graham Ward at his Festival Cafe. On the way, we stopped off at the old Hornby factory which has become a visitor attraction.
Before I describe what we saw, here’s a bit of history…
Hornby was named after Frank Hornby, of Liverpool, who invented the engineering and building toy Meccano. It was a small step from there to tin-plate model railways. Hornby models were pioneers of the conveniently room-sized HO-OO scale. These models could be built into an impressive lay-out within the space and resources of middle-class families. By the 1950s and 1960s Hornby was the market leader.
Nowadays, they have a massive factory in China and build models for a whole host of international companies. These companies each produce a range of models that is appropriate for sale in their own country. The model train market is nothing if not chauvinistic.
Actually, that’s part of the model scene that I think is really interesting. When you see big layouts, they are a kind of utopia. Hornby now have a range of buildings, to scale, that can be used to fill up the centre of the lay-out and to add detail. When you look at the range of buildings available, it becomes obvious that there is something weird going on. All the buildings are relatively modest structures – terrace houses and workshops and so on. The favoured architectural style is definitely utilitarian; nothing too modern or too fancy here.
The towns build up to appear busy with lots of shops and workshops. There’s a lot of metal bashing going on. In fact, this is a scene that has more or less disappeared from Britain.
If you were to visit a big model engineering show with international exhibits, you would notice that each type and nationality of railway model has a corresponding form of utopia. Each one made-up in fantastic detail.
I remember that, at the end of the 1960s, BBC TV Blue Peter had a railway lay-out. It took me ages to figure out that the model included practically one-of-everything in the Hornby catalogue. Considering that, back then, it was impossible to buy anything else; it was product placement on a grand and unabashed scale. It was all a bit odd because, elsewhere, the BBC were busy removing trademarks and so on.
I’m especially interested in the trees… there’s a whole subset of model makers there.