Middleforth revived

West Lancs members who make a habit of visiting the Railway on gala days and other special events may wonder what is going on in the Engine Shed, devoid of most of its locos but full of other stuff. This ’stuff’ may include Meccano, static displays and 00 scale layouts, but a closer look may also reveal model locomotives with real, live steam issuing from chimneys and other orifices. For this is the magical world of 16mm, where model railways get all prototypical. None of those track-powered electric mice scurrying about a tiny landscape, these are chunky, oily, fire-breathing machines that inhabit layouts of a decent-sized scale, 1:19 to be (fairly) precise.

The Middleforth Light Railway

It all started more than 30 years ago when a group of garden railway enthusiasts, including some West Lancs members, built a live-steam layout. The intention was to run it at gala days and also take it to local events, to the mutual benefit of the Railway and the local 16mm fraternity. The late Bill Cook designed it and supervised its construction, and stored it at his Southport home. One track-laying session was undertaken in his back garden. The layout included an oval of track, to permit continuous running, and several buildings, which could be lifted off. It was compact and sturdy, capable of being quickly erected and dismantled, and of fitting into Bill’s car.

It was not a scenic layout, the emphasis was on displaying handsome models and fine-looking live steam locomotives; any landscape had to be imagined. In its early days photos of members’ garden lines were displayed alongside, to demonstrate the commitment to garden railways. The layout was named after Peter Dolan’s garden railway at Middleforth, Penwortham. Its first public outing was in June 1992 to a narrow gauge exhibition at Canterbury Hall, Preston (since demolished). Peter had been a founder member of the Lancashire area group of the national 16mm association. Sadly he died in 1987, but his widow allowed his railway to remain in use for some while, until group members lifted the track in early 1991 for reuse on the new portable layout.

For several years the layout operated on special occasions in the engine shed or, weather permitting, outdoors. It took part in the Railway’s 25th anniversary celebrations in October 1992. In July 1994 16mm modellers from near and far were invited to an Open Day, when they could visit not only West Lancs but also three local garden railways. Middleforth went on tour to Moorfields school in Preston, Lostock Hall carnival, North Fylde exhibition at Fleetwood, a return visit to Canterbury Hall, a Northern Models exhibition at Runshaw College, and to Worden Park in Leyland. There are also unconfirmed reports of a visit to Pontin’s at Blackpool. The Fleetwood visit included a memorable incident, recalled by Steve Colling as the day when a meths-fired Sergeant Murphy puttered quietly past his gassed-up Merlin in the sidings, trailing a 6ft sheet of flame in its wake.

During 1994 Bill Cook had to relinquish responsibility for the layout for health reasons, and it came to stay at Hesketh Bank. It was stored in one of the metre-gauge vans at the far end of the platform at Becconsall. Around this time the Railway was visited by another very different 16mm layout ‘Open Day at Timpdon Shed’, built by Chris Mackenzie. This was (and still is) a highly-detailed scenic layout with a ‘wow-factor’, which contrasted strongly with the fairly simple Middleforth Light Railway. Some dissatisfaction with the resident layout was probably inevitable afterwards, and interest in it gradually declined. Towards the end of 1995 a meeting of the 16mm modellers was hosted by John and Lorna Angell, to discuss the future of the layout. No firm decisions emerged, but the layout continued in operation for a while on gala days.

Hundred End

Eventually the Middleforth Light Railway fell into disuse and faded away, until only the nameboard and a few buildings survived. The Lancashire area group also faded, to be replaced, in part, by a new group incorporating Merseyside and West Lancashire. Fortunately the memory of the old layout remained, and in 2009 a suggestion was made to produce something similar, on a more modest scale, to entertain the visitors. Alan Frodsham made the 11ft by 5ft baseboard, and using donated 32mm gauge track and other items we built ‘Hundred End’. This is a fairly basic oval layout, with minimal scenery and a somewhat random collection of railway structures. However it serves to provide an extra attraction for visitors, as well as another venue for local 16millers to play narrow-gauge trains. Not surprisingly it is popular amongst the younger age group, who find it easy to relate to all the hissing and steaming after experiencing the 1:1 scale engines outside. So far we have resisted the temptation to run Thomas the Tank Engine stock - these are not toys after all!

It is also gratifying to see parents and grandparents interested, to the point of asking questions like ‘What do they run on?’, ‘Is it real steam?’ and best of all ‘Could I do something like this in our back garden?’. Playing the ‘guess the price range’ game is also popular - we like to point out that it is certainly possible to spend thousands on a top-of-the-range articulated Garratt, but equally possible to get a decent live steam engine for little more than the cost of half-a-dozen Hornby express locos. There is also a thriving second-hand market, not to mention a wide range of battery-powered diesel loco kits, starting at a very modest £50 or so. The 16mm Association has 4000 members, a quarterly magazine and a couple of dozen regional groups, so there is no shortage of help and advice.

Middleforth Revived

Time moves on, and like all standard-bearers for quality assurance, continuous improvement is our watchword. So what could be better than a 16mm layout - clearly it is to have another one! One very different in design, purpose and indeed funding. For a while I had been thinking about a new exhibition-standard portable layout, to supplement (and possibly even replace) my existing layout Walmer Bridge. This is rather basic 16mm layout which has done the rounds of local events, including a West Lancs gala day in 2012. The new one could perhaps be built jointly by several people, each doing one baseboard and then joining them up. A good plan, I thought, but others were not convinced, or at least not to the point of actually volunteering to participate. So I tried another tack. The late Derek Preece was a 16mm enthusiast as well as a West Lancs driver, and one of his old layouts was discovered in (where else) one of the metre-gauge vans. His widow generously donated it to the Railway, so there was a basis for creating something new. The baseboards were a little on the heavy side for a portable layout, but the track was in good condition.

I therefore hatched a new plan, for a joint venture between West Lancs and Pendle Valley Workshop, who produce a range of quality resin building kits in 16mm scale. Basically the Railway would supply the baseboard materials, I would build the layout (with Froddy’s assistance) and Pendle Valley would provide the buildings. We would run it not only at West Lancs but also take it to exhibitions and shows where Pendle Valley had a sales stand. It would act both as a working demonstrator for their building kits and, by means of appropriate display boards, leaflet stands, etc. as an advert for the WLLR. The new railway would retain the Middleforth name, partly for sentimental reasons but also because we still had the nameboard.

This time the bird flew, and in late 2014 Tony Kuivala and I started to reclaim the track for the new layout. The revived Middleforth is a 24ft long end-to-end layout rather than a round-and-round, with a turntable at each end to rotate the stock. The scenic theme is that of a coastal narrow-gauge railway, once connected to a mine network but now just about surviving on its own. At the time of writing it has had a trial run, in unfinished form, at the Woodvale Rally, and another outing, in slightly less unfinished form, at its first West Lancs event, the 2015 August gala. In-between the two events some re-engineering of the turntables has improved their performance, and I have invested in a shiny new trailer, which can take all six baseboards in comfort and safety. The layout has also been accepted for display at the 16mm Association’s National Show at Peterborough in April 2016.

A significant drawback to running 16mm in the engine shed is the need to hump stuff in and out every time, and to try to remember to put the track boards in, move assorted full-scale loco parts out of the way and give the floor a good sweep. Not to mention negotiating running rights with our Meccano colleagues. Hundred End is notable for the weight of its one-piece baseboard - it takes at least four people to manoeuvre it away from its resting place on the engine shed wall and onto its trestles. Storing the buildings, platforms and other impedimenta is also a challenge - just how much valuable clutter can Froddy’s workshop hold? Some day perhaps we might have a purpose-built museum building, with space for permanent layouts. Some day… 


This article was first published in 'The Short Axle', the journal of the West Lancashire Light Railway. I am grateful to Phil Pacey for information on the original Middleforth layout.

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