25 August 2020
Inspired by modellers past and present, Dave Spencer's spin on the railways in mid-century Forest of Dean captures joyous aspects of rural community life.
Books and articles about railway history in the Forest of Dean by Neil Parkhouse, Ian Pope, Ben Ashworth, and John Stretton, show how this extensive area of natural beauty became penetrated by a maze of branch lines and mineral routes serving mines, quarries, and various heavy industries. By the time the railways were nationalised, evidence of industrial decline and abandonment was everywhere: overgrown tracks, ramshackle old colliery buildings, squalid manufacturing premises, and spoil tips. Only a few regular rail services survived, holding the most important industrial townships together, while also connecting them to regional centres outside the Forest.
I’ve always been drawn to the stark environmental contrasts found in the places these authors have photographed and decided to build a layout that captured their distinctive atmosphere. In 2012/13 ‘Lydgate’ was completed – an imaginary colliery community in the Forest c. 1955-65. Sadly, its size meant that it had to be sold when I needed to vacate the workshop where it was kept. Undeterred, I quickly moved on to my next project – ‘Woodside’ – which is the subject of this article.
With a viewing area of only 5ft 6ins x 15ins, 'Woodside' is a fraction of the size of 'Lydgate'. Storage space will not be a problem! It is deliberately set in the same Forest locality and BR transition era, and uses some of the 'Lydgate' stock. Sometimes I refer to it as the ‘son of Lydgate’. It is dedicated to Malcolm Young, who provided the premises where I undertook my modelling projects until his sad passing in the summer of 2016.
In general terms, 'Woodside' is not unlike the mini/micro/cameo layouts that Iain Rice illustrates in his recent volume. It is self-contained – a single scenic baseboard plus detachable fiddle yard. Everything has been carefully conceived, planned, and built to a high standard.
But 'Woodside' has some attributes that differentiate it from other small layouts. First, its location. It sets out to capture the distinctive ‘sense of place’ that defined the Forest of Dean in the 1950s and 1960s. Second, the seasonal atmosphere. Some of the materials and colours used to represent autumnal vegetation rarely feature on layouts. Third, design. 'Woodside' is a split-level layout combining visual interest with operating potential. Passenger services operate on the higher level; freight below. Fourth, rolling stock. While I can’t claim that BR(WR) tank locomotives, small tender locomotives, and certain diesel types make the layout different, the re-painted dirty NCB Peckett saddle tanks and Sentinels may help. Admittedly, I’ve taken liberties here, because to my knowledge, the NCB Forest collieries used small BR locomotives rather than any of its own. 'Woodside' also features several dilapidated internal user Coal Board wagons with their distinctive white crosses on the side doors denoting that they are prohibited from BR running lines. At the time of writing, I haven’t come across any on a layout at shows.
My perennial challenge would be to include enough detail to give a convincing impression of an imaginary rail-served rural-industrial community in about 6sq ft of modelling space while, at the same time, not over-crowding the scene.
I opted for a very modest trackplan so as to avoid filling up every part of the baseboard with railway activity. Indeed, the passenger line is supposed to be a branch that became truncated when the colliery needed room to expand, so it stops well short of the baseboard end. This leaves space for colliery buildings, a coal conveyor, half a dozen mature trees, and saplings. I left sufficient room along the front for a loading wharf, plus a few cameo scenes that include road vehicles and human activity. I try not to run intensive services – although I may feel obliged to do so at exhibitions. A maximum of two locomotives are normally in use at any one time – usually one on each level. Both can move simultaneously because each level is controlled independently, and this generates more interest.
Fortuitously, Dean Forest trains tended to be short. During the 1950s, passenger services usually comprised auto trains, railcars, or a couple of locomotive-hauled coaches plus a van until they ceased in 1958. Freight trains would sometimes add up to no more than half a dozen wagons. Small tank locomotives were the 'norm' everywhere – 14XX auto tanks, various 'Panniers', and occasionally small 'Prairies'. The biggest locomotives would be GW 0-6-0s and BR 2-6-0s (mostly in the west of the area). Smaller diesel Classes 08, 14, 22, and 25 took over the few remaining freight duties after steam ended. I resolved to run only these particular steam and diesel types, plus tiny industrial shunters, otherwise the layout would look overwhelmed (and the locomotives out of place).
I’ve been determined to keep the ‘big hand from the sky’ away from 'Woodside!' I once used the Sprat & Winkle system of 4mm magnetic hooks and loops as the manufacturers intended, but abandoned it because wagon couplings became entangled and failed to operate as required. After much experimentation, I decided to develop a minimalist version of it with hooks designed for 3mm models.
Short fixed rakes of wagons are held together internally by Smith’s links. Wagons coupled to the front and rear both have a Sprat & Winkle hook with a steel ‘dropper’ set up as per manufacturer’s instructions, but only at one end.
The staple-shaped wire ‘loop’ recommended by Sprat & Winkle is omitted from wagons. Rakes remain intact on the scene, which limits operating potential somewhat, but I’m prepared to compromise in the interest of reliability. Each locomotive has the wire loop super-glued into holes drilled 20mm apart in each buffer beam. The height of each loop needs to be adjusted correctly and protrude as far forward as the buffer heads so that it will always engage with the wagon hooks when locomotive and stock are pushed together. Once everything is set up, a rake of wagons can be hauled over a magnet, and the tension between wagon and locomotive released by halting and ‘easing’ the locomotive back. The hook drops down, and uncoupling occurs.
I discovered that I could fix Gaugemaster medium-sized permanent bar magnets between track sleepers without disturbing them. Four placed in a row generates a magnetic field that has enough ‘pull’ to work well. Much time was spent determining where the Woodside magnets should be, bearing in mind the actual shunting operations that would take place.
Of course, electrical cleanliness (as described above) is absolutely essential for this system to work properly. Locomotives must be very responsive to the controller, otherwise it will be a struggle to stop them directly over the magnets.
The challenge for operators is to know exactly where the magnets are. Carefully chosen trackside debris normally marks their position, and practise makes perfect! From time to time it’s important to check that hooks and loops have not been knocked out of alignment – otherwise there is likely to be much poking and prodding leading to frustration and disappointment.
I’ve managed to convert some passenger stock to accept my minimalist version of the Sprat & Winkle system. The underside of coach bogies had to be heavily modified to accommodate the hooks – an intricate operation! At 'Woodside' terminus (where space constraints rule out a run-round loop) locomotives can bring in a train, uncouple, and move away. A second locomotive can then reverse onto the other end of the coaches and take the train out. This means that I don’t always have to rely on push-pull trains and railcars, and it leads to greater operating interest.
Some buildings and natural elements were modelled using the ‘less is more’ philosophy. They were represented in half-relief to occupy less space but, nevertheless, create a significant impact. Apart from the colliery coal conveyor and a few huts, the industrial buildings located close to the edges of the layout (such as the loading screens) were reduced in depth. A group of natural features received the same treatment. Only half of the canopy of some specimens is visible, leaving a relatively flat rear profile to allow them to be positioned very close to buildings, the backscene, or other vegetation.
Arranging a selection of half-relief trees, bushes, saplings, and buildings creatively in close groupings helps conceal the extent to which they have not been modelled in full. Adding a few small items directly in front of them (overgrown fences, station nameboard, gates, lamps, telegraph poles, small trees, and shrubs) makes these parts of the layout really come alive. The areas to the left and right of the station building show what half-relief modelling and selective detailing can achieve in a space of only a few square inches.
Creating virtual space
A 2D backscene is essential to make a micro layout look more spacious than it is. It can also complement or enhance the principal 3D features by locating them in a wider landscape context and by creating the illusion of depth. I was determined to create a bespoke photographic backscene with layers of images in order to create ‘virtual space’ and suit the models I had made (or planned).
I began with the sky. I opted for self-adhesive Gaugemaster sky paper sheets in a fairly neutral shade of pale blue/light grey. These sheets were initially only tacked in place and checked out under the layout lighting - a trick I learned from Pendon Museum. A cool white fluorescent tube in the ‘roof’ and a strip of LEDs behind the pelmet kept the colours nicely muted and gave sufficient illumination. Once a few buildings had been tried out on the scene, I found that these lights didn’t cast many shadows.
Next, I photographed different landscape types in and around the Forest on October afternoons, mindful of the views I required to complement my plan. I edited the images to make their focus ‘soft’ and the colours slightly pale, knowing this would make the landscape scenes appear to recede into the distance. I kept a sample of foreground modelling materials in preferred colours at hand throughout the editing process to avoid guesswork when backscene hues and tints were adjusted. Appropriate photographs were printed, temporarily positioned, and tacked above the sky paper.
Moving on, I selected images of buildings that could be super-imposed on top of some – but not all – Forest landscape photographs to create a virtual environment that gradually faded into the distance. They were sourced from appropriate photographs that had appeared in modelling magazines. I was relieved to find that photographs of top quality models looked much better than photographs of real world structures when inserted between my own 3D creations and landscape images. I refrained from sticking them permanently in place at this stage.
Finally, I spent several hours using old-fashioned ‘cut and paste’ techniques to arrange and re-arrange both sets of photographs until they related well together. This proved to be a frustrating experience at times, but it was worthwhile. I paid particular attention to filling the spaces behind the half-relief groupings I had already created. After much trial and error, the 3D baseboard modelling and 2D backscene landscapes came together as one. I then glued everything into place to generate an impression of seamless depth.
As a friend said to me, the layout is balanced and seamless; everything gels together to form a satisfying whole; the time frame is clearly the mid-1950s-1960s; and the season is unmistakably autumn. The railway is embedded in the landscape. Sometimes, viewers have to look over or around the built structures to see the trains in action, or catch glimpses of them through the natural features.
I’m pleased to say that when running there are few mishaps, and operators only intervene occasionally. The magnetic uncoupling system works well, too. If something fails to couple or uncouple, or if a loco stalls, a light touch with a small paintbrush usually works. The ‘big hand from the sky’ can't be completely eliminated!