The Peckforton Light Railway

27 March 2023
Rik Bennett treats us to a tour of his 16mm scale line and explains its history, both real, and imagined.

The Peckforton Light Railway is a model of the three-foot narrow-gauge line which I have speculated might have been constructed towards the end of the 19th century in the Cheshire countryside near where I live. In reality, the copper mines in the Peckforton Hills which the Peckforton Light Railway serves were never very lucrative but, in my imagined history, a rich seam was struck and hence the ore and spoil needed to be transported to the nearby standard gauge Chester to Crewe Railway.

My model depicts the railway as it might have existed in the early 1930s, a period chosen quite deliberately to explain why locomotives and rolling stock from recently closed narrow gauge railways have found their way onto PLR metals. The line survived where others failed partly because of the copper ore, partly because of tourism, partly because of the patronage of Lord Tollemache, the owner of the Peckforton Estate and largely because of thriving businesses and local residents who loyally support the railway despite competition from road transport.

The main PLR terminus is Beeston Market station, adjacent to Beeston & Tarporley Station on the LNWR main line. Interchange sidings allow copper ore, spoil, sand and gravel and merchandise to be loaded and off-loaded from the standard gauge railway.

A house extension allowed for a station forecourt to be constructed, featuring Holmes’s tearooms, a scratchbuilt Plastikard model based on the actual tearooms which were originally located adjacent to the Beeston and Tarporley mainline railway station in the interwar period.

The new garage has enabled me to construct internal storage sidings where the majority of rolling stock is now located when not in use. Previously, I used stock boxes which were stored in the conservatory and lugged out and in before and after operating sessions. Two slipped disks in my neck rapidly put an end to that process! It now takes slightly longer (about an hour) to deploy the rolling stock to the five stations, copper mine and the two outlying sidings prior to running trains, but now no rolling stock, apart from locos, leaves the track and the deployment is carried out by one of my locos – which I find is far more satisfying.

Perhaps the most striking addition to the station is the representation of the Beeston Castle ruins on the crag behind the station. In 2012, there was just a hill and a few chunks of sandstone suggesting a castle wall. There is now a gateway, an outer bailey, an inner bailey wall and the remains of towers – carved from a couple of Thermalite blocks. These are sawn with an old wood saw and features carved with the blade of a screwdriver. They can be joined with mortar or gap-filling adhesives. I coloured mine with cement dyes but watered-down acrylic paints would work just as well.

A sawmill has been modelled in stripwood and coffee stirrers with a curved aluminium foil roof corrugated with a card crimper. The interior has been detailed and a cut-down Airfix beam engine bashed into a horizontal steam engine appears to power the machinery with a series of layshafts and belts. In reality, the Peckforton Estate was forested at the start of the 20th century and a sandstone sawmill actually existed – but I only discovered this after I had constructed my sawmill. A happy coincidence!

The line crosses the entrance to a small patio area on a viaduct, constructed by cladding a plywood structure with individual balsa wood ‘sandstone’ blocks. Once finished the whole structure was soaked with wood hardener; the stuff used to treat dry rot; for durability. I wanted a lightweight structure easily removed when not in use. A similarly constructed ‘sandstone’ embankment at the Copper Mine has been left outside continuously for over five years now and it is only just beginning to show signs of ageing. The blocks are, however, still intact.

Shortly after the viaduct, the line runs beside a representation of the River Gowy which cascades down a rocky gulley. A water mill is located on the opposite bank of the stream constructed by lining a sloping trench with heavy-duty polythene and then concreting chunks of rock into place. The stream runs down into a sump containing a submersible pump.

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We now pass by Bickerton Station, under the line as it leaves Beeston Castle station and then reach a crossover linking back to the original line (though now in the opposite direction). The crossover is taken to pass around the back of the workshop and then, rather than returning to Beeston Market, we take the left-hand line, cross over the Southwold-inspired swing bridge to reach Bulkeley Station. The bridge was constructed from uPVC angle glued together with superglue. It has been in situ for nearly ten years now and apart from a repaint and a repair where a wellie-clad boot caught it when accessing the workshop, it is still in remarkably good condition.

Bulkeley Station area was widened this winter and adapted to include two new sidings. I wanted a create a siding to the rear of the raised bed on which the station is situated so I could model another lineside industry in half-relief, similar to the Brewery and the Copper Mine buildings. The new siding will serve a bone mill. There was actually a boneworks in the Peckforton area right up to the 1960s. Carcases and manure are transported in, and glue, fertilizer and gelatine sent out. The real boneworks generated a fair amount of hostility in the locality – mostly owing to the overpowering smells generated as the carcases and bones were boiled and crushed, but also because the carcases were hauled through the centre of the neighbouring village from the station on open horse-drawn carts. For this reason, deliveries by the PLR are all made in tarpaulin-covered open wagons. I have decided not to reproduce the smells, though! My bone mill will be represented by a half-relief structure in foamboard or cast concrete and there will be some tarpaulin-covered piles of unmentionable clutter in the yard. I am not aware of a bone mill having been modelled on any other model railway layout – I can’t think why?

A 32mm gauge feeder line has also been added originally represented by a very short length of minimum gauge (16.5mm) track. There is now a five-yard length of ‘two foot’ gauge track leading to the crusher shed and spoil chutes served by two small diesel locos.
Returning to Bulkeley, if we follow the mainline, we now meet the crossover again, in the reverse, trailing direction and descend to pass below the track beneath Beeston Castle. Just before the underpass is a siding to the sand and gravel quarry. In reality, there was a quarry adjacent to the standard gauge station at Beeston & Tarporley. In my hypothetical world, this has been moved nearer to Bickerton to provide additional operational interest. A rake of Snailbeach-like hopper wagons transport the sand which are filled from loading hoppers served by another short length of 32mm gauge track.

The majority of my railway is constructed on raised beds which were made from breeze blocks clad in sandstone. Apart from red sandstone being native to the area and hence in plentiful supply, it is easily cleaved (though not as cleanly as slate) and so I can make a few rocks go a long way when cladding the breeze blocks. The sandstone cladding is held in place with concrete to which some PVA is added to improve adhesion. The section from the workshop to Beeston Market is on wooden baseboards made from treated one-inch thick fence rails supported on four-inch square posts. This section was built into an existing laurel hedge which was then shaped to accommodate the trackbed.

Laurel would not be my first choice as a backing for a railway. I really like using lonicera. It has small leaves and can be readily trimmed to form miniature trees. It provides a fast-growing backdrop to, for example, Bickerton station which is actually less than a foot away from our neighbour’s fence. It roots easily - hedge clippings can just be poked into the soil and I find at least 70-80% of them take root. I have started growing lonicera between the laurel stems and they are now beginning to take over so eventually I am hoping they will replace the laurel completely.

I see my locos as a means to the end of operating my railway as realistically as possible, rather than becoming ends in themselves. The convenience of having battery-powered locos overrides the desire to tinker about with gas, water and steam oil. And besides – I scratch-bashed six battery-powered RC equipped locos for the cost of one Regner! I don’t actually need eighteen locos – the maximum I have running during an operating session is seven, but I do like to vary the locos for each running session.

For me, the greatest joy I gain from my railway modelling is operating trains in as realistic a manner as I can manage. A full operating session representing one (summer) day’s movement on the railway usually takes me two days. I run passenger trains on a sequential timetable and goods movements are generated by a computer program. This sometimes throws up combinations of trains and movements I would never have considered and some interesting shunting conundrums, particularly when a goods or mixed train becomes longer than a passing or run-round loop.

My rolling stock is largely bashed from LGB and HLW wagons. They are representations of rolling stock rather than scale models but that suits the way I want to run my railway – they have to be serviceable, reliable and look about right. I have replaced the LGB style hook and loop couplings on my stock with homemade wire alternatives. I need couplings which are reliable, easy to operate and cheap! As they are compatible with LGB style hook and loops, I was able replace them over a period of time without having to shelve unfitted stock.

There is always plenty to do. Garden railway modelling involves an incredible number of skills and areas of knowledge so I am always learning and pushing the boundaries. I have recently acquired a cheap 3D printer and enjoy the fresh challenge of figuring out how to turn my creations and the wealth of drawings available for free on the web into reality. I actually bought it because I wanted to mass produce the fourteen seats needed for a model of a Country Donegal Railcar which is presently under construction. Of course, it has now taken me longer to learn how to draw the seats in 3D and print them than it would have taken me to scratchbuild them! But what would have been the fun in that?

I feel really sorry for people without hobbies such as ours. I do hope that the time people have been forced to spend in lockdown because of the virus has helped them reprioritise what is important in their lives. Being forced to stay at home has certainly not been an imposition for me; I have seen it as an opportunity.

As a former teacher, I really feel garden railway modelling should become a compulsory subject in schools – it covers practically every area of the existing curriculum and more besides. But then, I suppose I might be slightly biased!


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