It began on the August bank holiday of 2011, when in a moment of rash eagerness I asked the Corris exhibition manager if he would be interested in a live steam layout for the following year. The show had finished and I was loading up the micro layouts and wondering what might be more interesting to do next time, particularly as the micros were of the round-and-round variety, with little input from the operator. Bill responded with great enthusiasm, saying he had always wanted to have live steam at the show but had never found anyone to do it. There was no backing down from that position.
As you can imagine, a major constraint with an indoor 16mm layout is size. I did not want to be hiring vans or be too dependent on friends to help with transport. All of it, give or take the odd box of wagons, would have to fit in the car. Fortunately I had the foresight a couple of years previously to change the family transport from the quirky-but-not-too-practical PT Cruiser to a more useful Passat estate. This had the benefit, apart from more dashboard lights than seemed ergonomically possible, of considerable cubic yards of boot space. Enough perhaps for up to four 6' x 3' baseboards. This would give just sufficient room for a minimum-radius oval and a couple of sidings. Hardly the riot of sweeping transition curves and multiple-choice turnouts that one would like to see one’s locos traversing, but it would at least give a flavour of what 16mm modelling is about.
At this point I must confess to having previous form with regard to portable steam layouts. The West Lancashire Light Railway at Hesketh Bank has a similar, slightly smaller, Mamod-tracked layout all on one hefty board. It lives up against the engine shed wall and on special event days is set up in said shed. We built it a couple of years ago to replace one which had decayed into virtually nothing, and run it with help from local 16mm Society members. I renamed it 'Hundred End' after a small village between Southport and Hesketh Bank, which had a station on the old West Lancashire Railway. The term 'portable' is a little misleading as it rarely moves more than a few feet from its moorings, and when it does it needs four people to carry it and a Hunslet and a couple of O&Ks to be shunted out of the way first. Something more lightweight would be needed for Corris.
Starting the build
After several months of procrastination, as befits a Civil Service retiree, and with the exhibition date beginning to loom, I made a start on the baseboards. They were kept simple, just four 12mm plywood sheets strengthened with 18mm x 25mm battens on the underside. Snap-over latches were used to hold them in alignment, assisted by a couple of bar clamps. For supports I invested in folding metal trestles, initially six but later upgraded to eight. At £28 a pair they were not cheap, but they guaranteed stability and removed reliance on hired exhibition tables and trestles of doubtful provenance. The track was Peco flexitrack, with curves at 2' 6'' radius, and three turnouts giving two sidings on the viewing side and one on the operating side. So no Garratts or similar big locos, but they would only look out of place on such a small layout anyway.
I would like to report that the scenery was carefully planned to represent a particular location, with dimensions taken from high-resolution photographs and detailed drawings made of every structure before the start of building. However I have never managed to work that way. I belong firmly to the make-it-up-as-you-go-along school of modelling, making extensive use of whatever surfaces from a rummage around not less than four overflowing scrap boxes. As it happened I had previously made a signal box and three small buildings using plans and components from Jackson's Miniatures. These had been used on a small G-scale Corris layout, since dismantled and sold, and were now seeking new employment opportunities on another railway. However I still needed a station, so I built one using MDF offcuts. Doors and windows were made from car-repair resin, using an old set of Jigstones moulds, and roofing from scribed plastic sheet. I wanted something a little different for the central booking hall, so I tried making an mini-atrium with more mouldings, using wooden sticks for supports. After a false start involving a slightly embarrassing structural failure, it all held up and was glazed with plastic sheeting.
I now had the makings of a small village, and taking advantage of the two successive dry days in Merseyside's summer, I erected the baseboards in the back garden. After laying the track I tried plonking the buildings down in different locations and standing back to gauge the artistic effect. Just before the monsoon returned I settled on their preferred positions and drew in roads and verges. Tarmac was sand painted black and greenery was a mixture of Woodlands Scenics and other commercial materials.
For the next scenic item I must take you back fifteen years to when we were young, the children were younger and the house and garden were bigger. In those innocent times I built a nominally-portable 16mm layout in the garage (did I say I had previous?) and took it to the local Southport exhibition. Apart from running my new Roundhouse Pooter, its main feature was a large ruined abbey. This was made out of many cement stone blocks, formed using the same Jigstones moulds in their first flush of newness. Afterwards the abbey retired back to the garage to reflect on its moment of glory. On moving house it was dismantled (if it is grammatically possible to dismantle a ruin) and stored for a rainy day. And lo, in 2012 it rained exceedingly, so selected parts were returned blinking into the dull light of 20/20 cloud cover. A new, smaller ruin was created, the stonework adding noticeably to the weight of that section of baseboard. Also added was the original repair workshop of corrugated bean-tins, well rusted from a decade-and-a-half in a damp, dark garage, and a small building site made out of, you guessed it, Jigstones blocks.
I then just needed a name. Being brought up in Deal I had already named four locos after Kent castles, and had twigged that Deal's adjoining town Walmer had a near-twin at Walmer Bridge, just north of Hesketh Bank. It never had a station, but the West Lancashire Railway did run through it. More than enough justification to hijack the name.
A trial run
At that stage, with the addition of assorted people and two model cars, the layout looked fit for a run-out. An opportunity arose at the West Lancs summer gala, a two-day event featuring all available 2ft gauge locos in steam, plus other attractions, including Hundred End. I was already committed to running that layout, but the thought occurred that with the help of other Society members we might manage to run two side-by-side, and so double the pleasure of the paying public. As well as giving the new layout an excursion it would also prove that it would fit in the car. Or not, as the case might be.
In the event it all just went in, apart from a small coffee table, which being an optional extra for displaying brochures, didn’t count. Some careful positioning was required to fit both layouts and an 009 model in the engine shed, whilst not encroaching too blatantly on the area allocated to the meccano. The other complication was that some or all of it might need to be taken down on the Saturday evening to allow a visiting 2ft gauge loco to be stabled overnight. However some creative diesel shunting produced enough room for this not to be necessary. The event was highly successful, with both layouts running a mixture of live steam and battery diesel all weekend. Outside six locos took turns to take passengers for a ride, the fair organ played, the traction engine simmered, the sun shone and all was well with the world.
Back home another scenic item was constructed to fill a gap identified during the gala. I had a Modeltown stationary steam engine kit which would fit the bill but which urgently required machinery to drive. A ferret through scrap bin no.3 (Rolling Stock Bits) produced three redundant motors, probably ex-LGB. With the addition of pulleys, rubber bands and a wooden shelter, they could perhaps be persuaded to imitate an electric generator set. And so they were.
Onwards to Corris...
A fortnight later was the big event, the three-day Corris Model Railway and Toy Exhibition. This is a relatively small show, but the wide variety of exhibits and the friendly atmosphere, coupled with the opportunity to ride on the adjacent railway, makes it an enjoyable and entertaining event. This time I had help in the form of the chairman and deputy chairman of Southport Model Railway Society. With such luminaries on hand it could only go well, despite one absconding for a trip down a slate mine and both sloping off for a trip on the full size railway. On the Saturday another Corris member arrived with a pair of Corris locos to run, adding a touch of both topicality and class to the motive power. Over the three days nothing fell off, no locos failed, the public were mildly amused (particularly with the stopping sweetie train) and the exhibition manager was entranced. One or two comments were made concerning the smell (mostly complimentary, although one exhibitor unaccountably asked to be relocated before we even got started) and during the warmth of the Sunday afternoon it was felt beneficial to open some windows. However the term ‘risk assessment’ was heard only the once, and then uttered by one of the operators.
During the show a couple of Hornby tinplate gauge O signals and a crane kit were acquired from the Corris Society's secondhand stall. The crane was unusual in being a foot-high model of a design by that well-known Italian railway pioneer Leonardo da Vinci. Not surprisingly the apparatus looked a touch fifteenth century, but at first glance could well be taken for something used half a millenium later to maintain a building of similar vintage. It needed something to sit on, so a Swift Sixteen well wagon kit was purchased at the Llanfair show. I then remembered I had a Wrightscale Pechot crane and a Pretania winch wagon not doing anything special, so the beginnings of a crane train appeared. An IP kit, also from Llanfair, was built as a support coach, complete with dining facilities, and a wagon made from stripwood, plywood, more bean-tins and Binnie undergear, served as a mobile engineering store.
To complete a trio of public appearances, Walmer Bridge was displayed at that most prestigious (so its exhibition manager says) railway event in the north-west, the Southport exhibition. The month before was spent assembling and painting the crane train, also negotiating the optimum position for displaying the layout with the sports hall manager. The week before involved some last-minute activity to build a coal staithe, using twelve-inch-to-the foot coal borrowed from West Lancs. Whether it will eventually find its way back is a little uncertain, but the intent is there, honest.
The show turned out to be another unqualified success, in a busier environment and with a slightly more discerning audience. However the most frequently asked questions were similar to those at the previous two venues. As an exercise for the reader I give the answers for you to work back from:
1) Not as much as you might think,
3) It’s O gauge but not O scale,
4) In the back garden, and
5) If you do it will hurt.
Again I had assistance from two loyal 16mm members from Liverpool, which eased the operating burden and gave me a chance to look round at what else was on offer.
A conclusion, of sorts
Walmer Bridge is definitely not the pinnacle of 16mm modelling excellence, more like grubbing about in the foot-hills of the scale. However it has demonstrated that a small live steam layout is practical both to operate and to transport. There is enough scenery to make it interesting, in addition to the relative novelty of 16mm indoors. It is undemanding to operate, even with manual locos, and the time passes quickly, always a good measure of whether you are enjoying the experience. Also the spectators do seem to make the connection, unbidden, with garden railways, to the extent in some cases of wondering if they could do something similar in their backyard. Needless to say we do all we can to encourage such positive thinking.
First published in the Journal of the Association of 16mm Narrow Gauge Modellers