The Famous Trains exhibition at Derby’s Markeaton Park
- Credit: Archant
Geoff Ford visits the popular Famous Trains Model Railway at Markeaton Park in Derby which is celebrating its fifth anniversary.
Markeaton Park has the highest footfall of all Derby's glorious array of public parks, and Derby has a unique place in British railway history, so where better to locate one of the largest scale model railways in the East Midlands, if not Britain?
This was the vision of three local model railway enthusiasts in 2006 and not only has the dream become reality but their Famous Trains public exhibition celebrated its fifth anniversary earlier this year with a visit from Cllr Mike Carr, then Mayor of Derby.
'We thought we could build a model railway and open it to the public if we could find a building that was big enough,' explained Colin Boocock, President and Publicity Officer of Famous Trains, as he gave me a tour of the exhibition ahead of the Mayor's visit. 'Peter Stanton (now Honorary Treasurer) and I walked around Markeaton Park in 2006 and saw this building which was not used for anything exciting... Now we are getting around 7,500 visitors each year. We had our 30,000th visitor last June.'
The success of the exhibition has placed Famous Trains at number 15 on the Trip Advisor rankings of things to do in Derby, ahead of venues such as the Silk Mill, Derbyshire County Cricket Club and The Arena!
Of course, model railways have always been a big attraction for children of all ages and the Famous Trains exhibition has something for everyone. Alongside the centre piece 60-ft Chinley model railway is a Harry Potter-themed layout and early Hornby DoubleO and tinplate trains that fuelled the enthusiasm of the older generations.
'The big Chinley layout is an 00 scale model of Chinley Station as it was in the 1950s and 60s. Chinley was the junction between the main line up from St Pancras through Derby into Manchester, which Barbara Castle closed in 1968, and the Hope Valley line from Sheffield which remains open - one of the lines that Dr Beeching said should close,' said Colin.
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'At the moment we are being very authentic. We have 20 trains on the layout, automatically staging themselves one after the other, so there's plenty to see. We are running authentic trains for the period and location. Sometimes we flood this with modern trains because a lot of our visitors like modern trains - some of them are young enough not to remember this lot - and sometimes we run famous trains from all round the country and different eras, from 1925 right up to more recent times, or we can run a mixture.
'There were three of us, all retired mechanical engineers, who wanted to run a model railway with full-length trains - that's a steam train with up to 12 coaches or 40 coal wagons. You can't do that in an average house loft! And in a loft it's rather a selfish hobby because no one else can share it with you.'
Once the seeds of the idea to have a permanent exhibition had been sown, Colin, Peter and Tony Clarke (Vice Chairman and Layout Manager) set about creating a small station terminus layout, Darley Green, in Tony's garage. This fictitious but typically Derbyshire station was built over five months and then taken to exhibitions to raise support for the idea of a model railway in Markeaton Park. Darley Green now sits at the end of the exhibition hall and, whilst attached to the main layout, usually operates independently of the Chinley layout with trains coming and going automatically.
To house and operate such a project comes at a cost, so Famous Trains is registered as a charity, which has helped to fund the initial setting up and direct their purpose going forward.
'To get this building we needed to be a charity,' Colin said. 'Initially we applied for grants because we agreed with the council that we would have responsibility for the condition of the building if we got it running. When we first took it over it was a store. It was built in the Second World War for an army camp, as cheaply as could be done. When we came in it was cold, damp and the roof was leaking. We got grants from the Lottery Fund, a similar size grant from a BIFA Award and grants from a few other charitable bodies, enough to have the roof replaced, the building insulated and new lighting and heating. We see ourselves as a permanent attraction for people in the park.'
'One of the reasons we gained charitable status is the educational side to the display. The layout is based on the local history of railways around Derby, with the Midland Railway expanding outwards from the city in the 1830s and 40s, and the fact that Derby is the one place in this country that has been building trains continuously since the 19th century, and still is!'
Famous Trains is run entirely by volunteers. Group membership currently stands at 70, of which 25 to 30 active members come in regularly to help with repairs and development work or operate the layouts on public open days.
'It is good to have people who are interested,' Colin adds. 'We like to have somebody out front who can talk to visitors and explain what the model railway is about and show them the history information boards. There are now ten members under the age of 20. The last person to join is 12. They bring some interesting skills with them and are happy to learn new skills. One young man, now 18, has a background in electrical work which is very useful. Four of our tracks at the back are being gradually fitted up so that we can run two trains on one track. Instead of running 16 trains we will be able to run 20. This is not digital, it uses electronics to stop and start the trains in different places along the track.'
Many of the trains are owned by the members, although as the group's funds allow they are being replaced with trains in the group's ownership. Colin mischievously points out the difference between some of the older locomotives and new stock: 'The oldest model is a 1950s Hornby DoubleO 8F freight engine and that works the loaded limestone train. The modern Hornby 8F pulls the empty one because it can't pull the loaded one!' An old model of Britannia has been with the club since day one and has run over 200 real miles on the layout. 'It is going as sweetly as ever it did and I don't remember anyone ever having oiled it! If they were all as reliable as that we would be in clover,' he adds.
There is also impressive attention to detail in the landscaping, with a mixture of card and plastic kit buildings alongside some wonderful scratch-built replicas of real scenes. 'The buildings in the village here are mostly based on something in Derbyshire. These three-storey houses come from the incline going down into Cromford. The pub is a standard kit, but we called it The Birkett Arms because my wife used to be part of the Present Company amateur dramatics team and it's named after a member who died young. The corner shop T Fearn & Son is named after Terry Fearn who was the main tenor - his son died early so we named it as a memorial. The burned-out shop attracts a lot of attention and The Chandley Arms is named after the guy whose layout became the core of our Chinley model railway, Derek Chandley, who unfortunately died just before Famous Trains was open.'
The village of Chinley is also represented in great detail. 'The Prince's Hotel is a hand-built model by the Vice Chairman Tony Clarke. Right through to the bridge at the far end, it's a model of Chinley as it was and is pretty well authentic. Beyond that it is down to our imagination. The tunnels, whilst representative of Derbyshire railways, are there to hide the workings after the trains leave the station.'
The Mayor, Cllr Mike Carr, and his party took a great interest in all aspects of the exhibition during their visit in April. Addressing the Mayor, his wife Mrs Cilla Carr and all those visiting the exhibition, Chairman Adrian Maynard noted that the visit was a celebration of the exhibition's fifth anniversary and of the members' hard work that has created the layout as it stands today. He concluded: 'A big thank you to all the people who have worked on the layout to make this possible.
'We are promoting railways within Derbyshire, and Derby as a train manufacturing centre since 1839. To our visitors we are demonstrating history, geography, art and craft. For me, a model railway is about more than trains, it's also about immersion in the whole experience.'
Famous Trains is open to the public every week on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Entrance is £2.50 for adults, £1 for children, £5 for a family ticket. For more information, please visit www.famoustrains.org.uk.