THE ALHAMPTON MINIATURE RAILWAY
By Stephen Wessel
Many readers of this magazine will be familiar with our garden railway and may have taken a ride on it during one of the Alhampton Fetes sometime in the last 15 years. As I am always being questioned about its origin, its construction and above all its reason for being there, the time has come to explain.
Back in the mid-1960s when I was studying engineering at the University of London my walk from digs to college every day took me past a small shop just off Sloane Square that filled me with fascination. This was no ordinary shop; the window display and everything glimpsed beyond comprised a collection of miniature steam locomotives of every type and scale, together with related bits and pieces such as valves, tools and trucks to ride on. No cake shop in the world could have seemed so beguiling, indeed almost subversive to an impoverished young lad of mechanical bent uninspired by his very dull degree course. One day I plucked up courage to go in. The genial owner, no doubt recognising the type, steered me past the enormous Royal Scott (all 10 feet of it) to a much smaller little engine that he said I could build in a small workshop. Once running, he told me, this little machine would pull me and several others along a track and give years of pleasure.
He was quite right. I bought the drawings and a set of heavy pieces of cast iron for the wheels and cylinder blocks, copper sheet for the boiler and numerous screws I thought might be useful. Some years later it was finished, proving to my parents that the childhood struggles with Meccano had not been in vain. Locomotives in those days didn’t come as kits. You had to build everything from scratch.
At this time I had really no interest in railways, my life having taken a completely different turn, so the little engine sat in a box for many years. Occasionally it was brought out to sit on a shelf for ornamental reasons and eventually spotted by a friend. His passion for railways opened my eyes to possibilities now that I had a small but flattish garden in Herefordshire. Sadly his enthusiasm didn’t extend to hard work with a shovel but somehow a little railway was built together with a couple of small waggons and the engine in due course put to work. The shop owner’s prediction came true and through the many like-minded fellows I met, much valuable experience was acquired in driving, track laying and everything connected with running a small railway.
The move to Alhampton in 1994 meant that the railway would have to be rebuilt. Before settling here I had started construction of a much larger steam locomotive of my own design having little idea of where it could be run, if at all. There are many considerations involved in moving house and choosing a suitable site for a garden railway was definitely not top of the list! After about 3 years I made a tentative start. There was however a problem in that we had inherited a rather lovely garden which had not asked to be despoiled by a long scar around it. Just as in the 19th century when railway mania swept the country, landowners being upset, bullied and bribed by the capitalist engineering barons, the miniature railway builder finds himself in a complex position: he is both wicked baron and landowner! He must therefore have a case – a justification for this vandalism that he can put before his own conscience and of course his wife. Mine was a bit thin.
The project was saved by two things: the gradual accumulation of grandchildren and the rampant efforts of Mother Nature to hide my “glorious works” as quickly as possible. Then by the time much of the track had been laid I very luckily acquired new friends and many offers of help to finish it. Always a source of good ideas, my wife Jinny realised that despite my worries, the railway offered new gardening opportunities. At her suggestion we put in new hedges and began to develop relatively neglected parts of the garden that would be seen by people on the trains. Although there was great excitement about every new stage I never quite got rid of the feeling of self-indulgence; money had to be found and many hours of back-breaking toil, digging, shovelling, barrowing, concrete mixing, all for the sake of……. a toy? This is dangerous philosophical territory that creative people often find themselves struggling with. Older now, I just laugh.
The track is built to a standard gauge of 5” and goes for just over 1/3 mile. This is one of several gauges used by the miniature world and remains popular for non-commercial garden railways. Smaller gauges are unstable at ground level for haulage of real passengers while the larger gauges of 7.25” and 10.25” entail a very large increase in size and weight of locos and rolling stock. The rail is aluminium, a good alternative to steel for light use; it can be easily curved, is kind to wheels and doesn’t rust. This is laid on wooden sleepers, mostly creosoted softwood that has the merit of being cheap and seems to last just as long as hardwoods. The track panels are screwed down to a thin concrete “ribbon” that keeps the whole structure stable and inhibits movement due to expansion in hot weather.
We have three steel bridges all constructed from galvanised angle salvaged from our old disused tennis court. The 20 yard tunnel is properly brick-lined, set on a gentle curve so that it is dark inside. The steep 1 in 50 climb forces engines to work hard ensuring plenty of steamy atmosphere.
The new locomotive was named “Marquess of Alhampton”. Now 20 years old it has done sterling service. I also have another home built electric loco that gets used mainly for teaching the children how to drive and take charge of a real train. This has been a spectacular success, giving them an experience that cannot be found elsewhere. They generally start at the age of 3. By the age of 5 or 6 the difficult concepts of keeping a steady speed and braking become just about understandable. They can earn a Certificate of Competence by 8 (signed by the fat controller) after a usually hilarious test involving emergency stops etc. But there’s no mucking about: they have to take it seriously and they do. Steam is a very different matter but I try to introduce it to them as soon as they can reach the controls.
We first opened to the village for our millennium celebrations in 2000. This went down so well that the railway has become an integral part of the Fete every year since. Various friends either bring their own engines or simply help with station duties such as controlling train movements, ensuring top-ups of coal and water, punching tickets and easing the fear of nervous passengers. I couldn’t manage it on my own.
Another annual event chiefly for the steam aficionados, is the “scale day”. On the last occasion we had no less than 7 engines and about 30 scale waggons of many types, all from different parts of the country. Goods trains are assembled by complicated shunting, then set off slowly down the line recreating a sight that so many of us remember from our younger days. Unlike the typical indoor model railway, the sounds and smells of the much larger scale lend an air of nostalgic authenticity. These enthusiasts know how to run my railway much better than I do so I tend to let them get on with it and ensure good supplies of tea.
Many visitors remark on how they lose orientation when taking a ride, never being sure where they are. This is of course deliberate, making the journey seem longer and more exciting. They see the garden from a new perspective viewing parts that cannot be reached easily by foot, while the tunnel carries them magically from one type of landscape to a completely different one. The railway, like all others, is a thin thread of civilisation cutting through the wilderness.
If you haven’t yet visited us come to next year’s Fete.