Sidmouth in P4 gauge

14 April 2020
Details are important but, while Richard Harper’s layout is an admirable and accurate depiction of its prototype, a little licence was allowed in terms of its exhibition running…


Layout name: Sidmouth

Scale/gauge: 4mm / 18.83mm

Size: 27ft 6in x 4ft

Era/region: 1959-60 / BR Southern Region

Layout type: End to end

Power/control: Power box non-proprietary/Pentroller

About 12 or so years ago I decided that it was time to build my own model railway. When looking for a potential prototype, I happened upon a picture of Sidmouth station. Apart from being an attractive subject it took me back to an article I had read some years previously and, it seemed to me, was worth further study. So began a period of intense research, with a number of visits made to photograph and measure what remains of the railway infrastructure that ceased being used in 1967. Fortunately, the station house, part of the station building, the goods shed, the weighbridge hut (now demolished) and some merchant’s sheds were still there. As I was only really going to get one shot at this I determined that I had to make a real effort to reproduce Sidmouth station and yard in the 1959/60 era as accurately as possible. As it was to be an exhibition layout, I wanted Sidmouth to appeal to those who look for detail and be interesting to those who like to watch trains. As the prototype only ever saw 15 trains a day, the latter aim would need some attention.

Sidmouth in P4

Seeking detail

I wanted the track to look prototypical so opted for P4 18.83mm gauge again, hand-built track using largely wooden sleepers and plastic LSWR 3 bolt chairs from Exactoscale / P4 Track Company (now C&L). The decision was also taken to build the station and yard area absolutely to scale. So, from the station to the signal box is the correct distance and no attempt was made to compress things laterally either. Beyond the signal box, I had to re-align the former gas works/factory siding, shorten the goods headshunt and introduce a road overbridge to act as a scenic break in front of the fiddle yard. The overall effect is one of space.

Observers have said the impression is of a setting with a railway in it, rather than a railway with a bit of a setting tacked on. Careful study of photographs enabled me to trace and reproduce all the point rodding, an item that is such an integral part of the railway scene, but not always modelled. The LSWR/SR point rodding stools were made from etches obtained from Southwark Bridge Models (now Roxey Mouldings).

Sidmouth in P4

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If a building still exists it should be relatively straightforward to get the proportions right and to end up with something that looks pretty much like the original. I was lucky with Sidmouth as a number of the important structures are still standing. The major missing link was the signal box. Research showed that a similar box could still be found at Instow, on the long since closed Barnstaple to Torrington line. From measurements taken there I produced my own sketches to assist in the construction. Even so, I had to make the roof twice, as my first effort did not look right. Luckily some photos were found that showed the interior and, by great good fortune, I happened upon a picture on the Internet of the signal lever plates, which gave me the function and colour of each lever.

Building construction is largely in styrene sheet. In the early days I made a plywood carcass first for fear of the warping that one can experience with styrene. Following a conversation with a demonstrator at a show, I dropped this idea and went for ‘sandwiching’ of styrene and using Limonene rather than Butanone as a liquid adhesive. The former does not dry so quickly and reduces the risk of dry areas. It is also less aggressive when used with clear plastic.

Sidmouth in P4

Care was taken over the telephone poles. I stripped former Airfix poles of their detail and then consulted photos to ensure that each pole was fitted with the requisite number of crossbars, insulator holders and steps. The insulators were made from plastic rod, cut to size and grooved with a needle file. Equivalent insulator brackets and insulators were attached to the buildings in their correct positions. I was keen to get the valance along the edge of the canopy correct, as well as the canopy supports and their cast iron brackets. Fortunately, examples of each are still to be found on site so photos and sketches were taken and submitted to Bill Bedford. He was commissioned to etch the valance and brackets and I had the support posts turned elsewhere from brass. Bill also etched the windows that I used in the Goods Shed and the former Engine Shed. My other commission was to York, who produced strips of brick edging for the station platform.

Sidmouth in P4

Other important stuff

When it comes to planting people, I have a general rule that I prefer to avoid frozen animation – no cyclists, driverless cars in the middle of the road, men wielding pickaxes etc. All my people (bar one exception) are often in groups of two or more having a conversation. There are individuals, of course, possibly reading a paper or just simply contemplating the scene. The exception is a porter wielding a broom in the station forecourt. My excuse here is that he has noticed something unpleasant stuck to his brush and has stopped mid-stroke. My vehicles are always parked. Any that have been purchased from the usual suppliers always have their paintwork dulled down to avoid that possibly unrealistic ultra-shiny finish.

Fish was brought into Sidmouth by rail. A suitable van is included early in the sequence and is left next to the former weighbridge hut. In later years fish suppliers would unload this van, wash the fish next to the hut and then distribute it in the local area. On the layout empty fish boxes can be seen piled up next to the hut along with old empty oil drums used by a road contractor.

Sidmouth in P4

Advertising hoardings outside the station and displayed on the building itself have adverts that were common in the late 1950s. They were copied from ones available on the Internet. I commissioned one or two extras, including the one for the current film at the local Radway Cinema – ‘The Captain’s Table’, which starred John Gregson This sets the date for the layout at week commencing July 20th 1959, and leaves me wide open to purists, of course!

Detail in the operation of the railway

To stick closely to the prototypical timetable would mean long periods of inactivity, which would be clearly unacceptable to an exhibition visitor. Clearly, the frequency of trains had to be increased significantly. The motive power used is also varied between ex-SR M7 tanks, Ivatt 2-6-2 tanks and BR Standard 3 2-6-2 tanks. A goods train arrives early on in the sequence and there is a fairly lengthy period when shunting takes place. A Plymouth excursion hauled by a 'West Country' and assisted by a banking locomotive arrives. A four coach train from Cleethorpes arrives. Both these trains demand some interesting stock movements, interspersed by the normal branch workings. Later in the sequence a number of ex-SR CCT 4 wheel vans arrive and are swapped with the empty equivalents in the factory siding. A Fish van and a Newspaper van are brought in at appropriate times and, of course, coaches are received from and despatched to Sidmouth Junction, where they are received from or sent to London Waterloo. I emphasise that all these moves actually took place at some time, maybe not on the same day, but are not fictitious in any way. I am most grateful to my good friends Roger and Angie Sanders, both involved with the full size railway, for being instrumental in writing the varied and interesting sequence that we now use.

Sidmouth in P4


All the particular engines used appeared at one time or another on the branch. In each case, whether a DJH kit, a Bachmann or Hornby body they have been fitted with compensated or sprung chassis, Portescap motors and extra weight to improve running characteristics. Cosmetically, extra detailing and some varied weathering has been added. Two of the ex-SR M7s are made from the excellent Martin Finney kits. As might be expected, coaching stock also represents that used on the branch and is constructed from Comet kits in the case of the Bulleid coaches and Cleethorpes Gresleys. All my BR Mk1s are Comet sides on old Mainline bodies with scratch-built chassis detail. I also use two of the excellent Hornby Maunsell coaches for one of the branch trains. I simply replaced the Hornby wheels with P4 items and close-coupled the two vehicles. They run like a dream. Wagons are all sprung and come from a number of the usual plastic kit sources.

Sidmouth in P4

Final Point

A great deal has been written about the performance of layouts at shows and I am very aware that Sidmouth has had its critics. My layout lives in a shed in the garden that is, regrettably, only long enough to accommodate two or three erected boards at any one time. Testing the various elements is therefore somewhat problematical. Temperature variation, storage conditions, humidity, normal wear and tear and travelling around the country in the back of a van can all play an interesting role in how a layout runs once it is erected on site. I am not seeking to make any excuses here, as I know that people have paid good money to see things happening. It is however sometimes worth remembering that the owner/operator may not always be at fault if things do not go as well as they should.

To read more about Sidmouth and get the article in full, see the July 2018 issue of BRM. Download today from