Messing about in the dirt

It's a little more than twenty years since I started playing trains in the garden, long enough to forget exactly what triggered the interest. Possibly some garden envy involving a certain doctor of dodgy medicals was to blame. Anyway, I recall getting my first live steam loco - a Mamod - in the late eighties and following it up with a 'proper' radio-controlled Roundhouse Pooter a couple of years later. The Mamod was a curious beast, originally made as a toy and fired by solid fuel, it struggled to pull anything more than a couple of coaches, and was not the easiest to control. However it was (relatively) cheap and with conversion to meths firing the pulling power was significantly better.

The Pooter is also meths fired, the lighting of which involves poking a burning spill upwards from underneath the loco. In the absence of a proper lighting-up bench the easiest way to do this is to hold the engine up in the air at about head height, remembering to put it down fairly quickly once lit to avoid burnt fingers, a dropped loco, or both. Looking underneath to ensure accuracy of delivery of the ignition source is not recommended, burning meths in the eye can hurt!

And talking of burning fuel, one highlight of my early days of live steam was a trip to a model railway exhibition in Culloden primary school, just outside Inverness. I was helping to run a 16mm layout, and managed to overfill the Pooter and deposit a not-insignificant pool of meths on the school's shiny-polished wood floor. Fortunately there was no ignition source in the immediate vicinity, or some nifty work with a fire extinguisher might have been required to prevent a premature end to the proceedings.

On another occasion I drove my loco in a carefully-controlled fashion and at moderate speed past a siding where a gas-fired loco was being refuelled. Steamologists amongst the readership will know that the sign of a gas tank becoming full is the release of a small but not-insignificant cloud of gas from the filling nozzle. Timing is everything they say, and the short-lived flash fire only added to the gaiety of the event.

There is photographic evidence of my first attempt at a garden railway in the back garden of our house in Aberdeen - see above.

The move back to Southport in 1993 was to a big house with a big back garden - ideal for railway engineering as there was no such luxury as a spare bedroom. After the necessary brief interlude while boxes were unpacked, furniture arranged and rooms allocated, civil works were started in the garden. Initially the shrubbery along the right-hand fence was targeted for a 45mm line, christened the Shed Shuttle line and using LGB locos of impressive size, weight and expense. Fortunately the civil service relocation grant went a long way to paying for the rolling stock, and we didn't really want new curtains anyway. For simplicity and speed of construction the permanent way was little more than a gravel-filled trench between two lines of bricks, many of which were dug up from the more distant recesses of the garden. Initially it was an out-and-back run, but eventually it developed into an elongated oval, by grudging permission of some very dense and scratchy rose bushes of considerable vintage.

Observant readers may detect that the original commitment was to a 32mm line, so clearly something similar was required in the new location. As it happened the garage had been converted into a gym by the previous owners, so it was promptly reconverted into a large-scale railway room. And so the Tamarisk Light Railway, incorporating Chislet Abbey, was born. It featured Mamod track and an awful lot of hand-cast cement blocks.

You may be surprised to learn that it was portable, and was in fact exhibited at the Southport show sometime in the mid-nineties. But only once. And quite how I found the time to do all this, hold down a full-time job and raise five children all at the same time is a complete mystery to me in my busier-than-ever retirement.

Back to the great outdoors, and a combination of tight curves and aggressive plant growth around the Shed Shuttle line meant that bigger locos and longer trains were not being fully catered for. Instead of being satisfied with smaller and shorter, I followed the railway gardener's motto of 'If it can be done it must be done' and built another gauge 1 track down the left side of the garden. This had more sweeping curves and a larger-radius oval, and allowed the bigger variety of American loco to be deployed outside. It was christened the Quail and Parrot line, as it ran alongside the aviary, and featured a tunnel made out of bricks and ridge tiles.

The fourth and final line at Pilkington Towers was the Ivy Branch line, built to satisfy the need for an outside 32mm railway. This ran inside the footprint of the Q&P, but did not see operational service for very long, as a drastic downsize in house, garden and railway was just around the corner.

After a decade-and-a-half of living in a house only just within our means, it became apparent that our children were growing up, at least physically, and we might not need the full facilities currently enjoyed. The idea of staying put and gradually expanding railway operations indoors as bedrooms became vacant, never really got off the ground - the domestic backlash would have been too great to even think about. Instead, after some complex negotiations and financial rearrangements we ended up in a modest semi in Crossens. The garden was significantly smaller, but at least it existed and could lend itself to some interesting garden railwaying.

The first thought was for an external ground-level 45mm line running down the right-hand side of the garden, along the back and partway up the left side. A number of fir trees gave rise to the possibility of a continuous run weaving in and out of the trees and associated vegetation - clearly I had learned little from my previous attempts at taming the wild outdoors. It was named the St Aubyn Light Railway, partly after a village in Cornwall near St Michael's Mount but mainly because I had acquired a windmill with that name on it. It ran reasonably well but was fairly high maintenance, another lesson not learned. The need for a 32mm line was met by installing the Tamarisk Light Railway in the garage, thereby making sure the structure would not be completely wasted by keeping a car in it.

After a while it became clear that two basic needs were not being met – a) the provision of a Man Shed, where a man can do what a man has to do, and b) an external 32mm railway. The garage had potential for the former but was limited because of the size of the layout it currently accommodated and the fact that it was a concrete gulag of little aesthetic value and absolutely no insulation. And so another ‘Grand Project’ was initiated. This had three core components, demolition of the TLR, lining the garage walls with wood and insulation and the floor with carpet tiles, and converting the garden railway to dual gauge. The first was done with little ceremony but with careful preservation of enough cast brickery to allow at least a limited version of Chislet Abbey to be rebuilt sometime. I assume of course that it is philosophically possible to rebuild ruins - discuss amongst yourselves. The wall lining was done one cold and dark winter when the wooden strips froze solid in their packaging despite being kept unopened in the garage, proof that the new insulation was desperately needed. A replacement window also went in, to better view derailments in comfort. By spring the transformation was complete, and I had somewhere to hide/ work in, with space for benches, tools and a heater.

As the ground warmed up attention turned to the garden. I had no experience of dual gauge but pressed ahead anyway. Fortunately there were no points to convert, which made it a little easier. After some thought it seemed the cheapest option would be to keep the existing 45mm line as it was and install a third rail, using Peco 32mm track. This had the slight disadvantage that it was smaller in profile than the 45mm, so it caused its trains to run slightly at an angle to the vertical. No problem - this is narrow gauge after all. It involved drilling every other sleeper for 32mm chairs, easy enough on the out section but a pain on the return leg, which was hidden deep in assorted shrubbery and accessible only by standing on plants of apparently priceless sentimental value.

All this time the quantity of engines and rolling stock was slowly increasing, as it has a habit of doing in all scales and gauges. And the number of buildings and structures has somehow reached the round two dozen. Regrettably I have felt the need to make lists of my models. Retirement means that more time is (theoretically) available to work on kits and even the odd scratch-built item. The acquisition of a bench drill and a scroll saw has further expanded the construction possibilities. One important factor which I have belatedly recognised is that a good loco chassis is essential, and it's worth paying the extra for a ready-made item rather than try to cobble together something of my own.

The two gauges ran reasonably well but were fairly high maintenance - where have you heard that before? And so another Grand Project, hopefully the last, or at least until another comes along. This entailed splitting the line in two, the front portion being retained as dual gauge but with both gauges electrified and provided with a shuttle unit to allow both 45mm and 0 gauge trains to run back and forth automatically. The rear portion would be relaid as a 32mm line for live steam and battery diesel operation, using the loops at each end to form a continuous run. To reduce the maintenance element both lines were to be laid on decking planks, which were robust, capable of being brought home uncut in the car, and most importantly, on special offer at B&Q. Screwing them together in an inverted U-shape meant that each line could be about six inches off the ground, reducing the amount both of leaf litter and of blackbird interference with the ballast.

This project is now largely complete, with a little more to do in landscaping and in fitting return springs on the points. And I have discovered 12v LEDs, cheap and easy to run off a low-voltage ring main, and with no fiddling about trying to solder and weatherproof in-line resistors. An-ever increasing number of colour light signals, station lamps and building lights are therefore starting to appear. Another project has been the creation of a demonstration layout in 45mm for the Corris railway, as seen at this year's exhibition, and I also seem to have talked myself into building a portable live steam layout. This latter item may well provide more opportunities for dynamic ignition incidents. All I need now is to wait for the weather to improve, and perhaps in the meantime do a little cataloguing.

First published in the newsletter of Southport Model Railway Society

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