Some layouts, such as Stoke Courtenay, will never get to see the inside of an exhibition hall, but John Condon's wonderful South Devon scene fits into our virtual wanderings. One for the copper-topped lover!
Growing up in the north post-war my railway frame of reference was purely LMS and LNER. Indeed, my first 0 gauge Hornby clockwork trains in the early 1950s were still blazoned with those initials, while most of my children’s books of trains extolled the virtues of the pre-war streamliners. I worshipped at the shrines of Gresley and Stanier, whose creations seemed to me the epitome of speed, power and modernity. On the rare occasions I saw illustrations of GWR locomotives, I dismissed them as beneath my notice, quaint relics of the Victorian age.
A family holiday in Devon in 1960 changed all that forever. Soon after, occasional trainspotting trips to Crewe with pals were extended to Shrewsbury (on at least one occasion, I regret to say, when we should have been at school). Here we happily drew the GWR insignia in the film of oily soot on the sides of loco tenders with our fingers, while thrilling to the sight of Manor replacing King on the Cambrian Coast Express for its onward journey. The bug had bitten. My Tri-ang ‘Princess Elizabeth’ was retired, my Jinty acquired a Gaiety die-cast pannier tank body (15 shillings from Hattons as I recall – a fortune for me then), while two Tri-ang suburban coaches crudely repainted brown and cream masqueraded as a B-set. Happy days!
Late teens saw a desultory attempt at more ‘serious’ modelling. I carted an embryonic branch terminus layout on two boards from one flat or bedsit to another for several years, but never got anything running. And apart from an early 90s interlude, dabbling with Hornby and Lima diesels on a contemporary layout for my then-teenage son, that was it until I retired in 2011. In that year my wife persuaded me that we needed a new roof, and that while we were at it, we might put a proper floor in the loft for storage, and perhaps power and light. You can guess the rest …… a few months later Stoke Courtenay was born.
Living in a semi-detached house with a hipped roof meant that the loft had only one vertical wall. There was an inevitable trade-off between the area available for the layout and its height from the floor. I’m a great fan of viewing models at track level, and eventually compromised at a height of 43 inches – eye level when seated! – which allowed around 13 feet by 12 for the layout. The question then was what to build.
Having such a limited modelling history and a lot to learn I considered playing safe by building a branch line terminus – after all, GWR small prairies were among my favourite locos. But so were Castles, and the cornucopia of enticing RTR models now available was irresistible, pointing me to a junction station. This would provide the best of both worlds, combining all the usual branch line workings with main line running, plus the added operational interest of tail traffic and branch through coaches. Something like Brent on the south Devon main line, junction for the Kingsbridge branch, seemed to fit the bill and, with quite a bit of simplification, the space. So, plans were drawn up and redrawn, finally being marked out full-size on lining paper on the loft floor, using C & L point and Timber Tracks curve templates. Features of the real Brent that had to be jettisoned included the characteristic siting of the goods shed on a loop and the two goods refuge sidings, resulting in a rather 19th-century type of track plan with no facing points on the main line. I also decided that operation would be more satisfying if I re-designated the up line as down and vice versa, so we have to assume that my offstage branch terminus, Earlsbridge, is located somewhere on the southern slopes of Dartmoor, rather than near the coast like Kingsbridge. The equally fictitious Stoke Courtenay takes its name from the family of the Earls of Devon.
Given that access to the loft is up a ladder and through a hatch, this was never going to be a portable layout. Vague memories of the estimable C J Freezer enthusing about the American L-girder system of baseboard support many years ago prompted further research which, following a large delivery from a local timber merchant, enabled me to construct a sturdy and stable structure integrated into the roof timbers and the new floor. The L–girders themselves were each made from two lengths of 2” x 1” softwood, screwed and glued together at right angles. They are immensely strong and can cope with unsupported spans of 9 feet, economising on timber and avoiding a forest of baseboard legs. A portion of this infrastructure was dropped to a lower level to allow the landscape to fall below the level of the railway. The surface, of 12 mm MDF supported on 2” x 1” cross bearers, was restricted to those areas where track was to sit.
Plain track is from C & L. One of my ‘must haves’ was proper steam-age track with bullhead rail and fully-chaired pointwork. At the time this meant scratch-building the points, my first big challenge. But before starting this task, using C & L components, I did some research into track standards and came across 00-SF, in which the track gauge through pointwork is reduced to 16.2 mm (in effect EM standards minus 2 mm of the gauge). The usual arguments in its favour are that it looks better and gives greater wheel support through crossings, while accepting all modern wheels without alteration. All true, but the clincher for me was that it enabled me to use C & L’s pre-fabricated crossing assemblies, designed for EM and 00 finescale, saving this lazy man a lot of work.
After a false start on my first turnout, I really enjoyed tracklaying, building all subsequent points in situ, the majority on a curve. It was a revelation how firmly Butanone bonded plastic chairs to ply sleepers, yet allowed easy repositioning if necessary, by slicing off with a knife blade and re-sticking. However, confidence failed me when it came to the single and double slips, which were made for me by Stephen Freeman (Borg-Rail). Carr’s ballast from C & L was used throughout, thoroughly weathered, with the ash variety in the goods yard.
Control is by a Prodigy wireless system. DCC was new to me, and although I haven’t exploited all its possibilities, I saw immediately that it would be of immense benefit in the types of operations I had in mind. A power bus formed from 25 mm self-adhesive copper tape runs below the baseboards, and every single piece of rail is connected to it by a soldered dropper wire. Points are controlled from the wireless handset via Cobalt Digital motors with inbuilt frog polarity changing. In the early days point operation would occasionally cause locos elsewhere on the layout to slow or stall momentarily, but the installation of a second copper tape bus specifically for point and signal operation soon cured this. The signals themselves are heavily modified Dapol items, operated from push buttons on the layout fascia.
Scenery is, deliberately, fairly broad-brush. The landscape was formed from an egg box framework of thick cardboard, cut to profile and glued to the baseboard timbers, over which a lattice work of thinner card strips was applied with a hot glue gun. This framework then received a ‘glueshell’ finish from hundreds of torn-up coarse paper towels pasted on with lashings of cheap PVA. Grass in fields and meadows is from Noch grass mats, any joins being disguised by hedges or paths. This is easy and effective, but a coarser texture and colour was needed for cuttings and embankments on the railway side of the fence. This was achieved with a mixture of WWS grass fibres, applied with their static grass applicator. Trees, bushes and hedges are mainly from Woodland Scenics products.
From the outset, I had a clear idea of the look I wanted for the landscape - sparse, uncluttered, almost austere - conjuring up, I hoped, some sense of wide-open spaces on a two-foot-wide baseboard. This is not the bustling Midlands, or even the fleshpots of Torbay, but the southern fringes of Dartmoor in the depressed 1930s. A key element in achieving this look was reducing the backscene height so the horizon was only about 3½ inches above rail level. I also resisted the temptation to add too many buildings, people, or motor vehicles and tried to keep colours fairly pale and restrained.
I didn’t originally intend to have any non-railway buildings on the layout, but Bachmann’s three-quarter low-relief church cried out to fill a corner, and their ‘Pendon’ pub was irresistible. A Ratio garage kit added a slightly more workaday element, and together they give a nod to the presence of a village. The station buildings are from Timber Tracks kits – satisfyingly complex and enjoyable to put together. The key is final painting, done by the dry-brush technique - another learning curve. The footbridge is an ancient Hornby kit by Pola, butchered to reduce its height by almost 50%, while the signal box and water tower are both Bachmann commissions for Kernow Model Rail Centre. Most readers will recognise the venerable Ratio goods shed, cattle dock and yard office. Bridges and tunnels are scratch-built from various thicknesses of Plastikard and Slater’s stone sheets. They are all based on examples in the various photo albums of the 1930s GWR.
Locos and stock, both RTR and kits, are from the usual suspects, but I’ve been fairly ruthless in acquiring only items that would have regularly been seen in south Devon in the thirties. I have been less ruthless in terms of the vintage and quality of these models. My aim is for atmosphere, flavour, impression, rather than superfine detail or scrupulous accuracy, and I’ll take whatever the trade has provided, whether new releases or 1970s models bought via eBay. So, for now, I’m content to live with top feeds on pre-war pannier tanks, a B-set with superfluous windows and clerestory coaches without relief panelling, rather than go without them. I always think of building the layout itself as Phase 1. Phase 2, now underway, might be described as ‘tarting up the trains’ and it is hoped that some of these errors will be rectified in due course as time and skill permit.
After experimenting with various coupling systems, some of which were beyond my skills to get working properly, I settled on small Bachmann tension locks, shortened so that the loop is in line with the buffer faces. Couplings on all vehicles involved in shunting or re-marshalling of trains have received the ‘Brian Kirby’ modification, in which a steel staple added to the dropper allows uncoupling over permanent magnets buried in the ballast beneath the tracks. This took some careful adjustment to vehicles, including the addition of a bit of friction, to stop them running back towards the magnets and re-coupling, but I can now shunt the yard, and attach or detach through coaches and other tail traffic remotely from my wireless handset, without physical intervention.
There is always more to do, and further incremental improvements are planned. My current priority is locomotive weathering. I also have plenty of coach and wagon kits to build. But, by and large, I’m fairly pleased with progress over the past seven years. I can’t pretend it’s always been easy. I’m clumsy and impatient, and often feel that I’m working at the very limit of my skills or a little beyond, leaving trails of mangled kits and broken bits behind me to the accompaniment of much bad language. But I hope I’ve shown it possible for us lesser-skilled mortals to build a credible layout with a prototypical atmosphere and a ‘finescale’ look, by judicious use of what the trade offers plus a bit of ambition and lots of perseverance. I’ve certainly learned a lot along the way!
Since appearing in the April 2019 BRM, the main emphasis on Stoke Courtenay has been to slowly improve the locos and stock. All locos have now received some degree of weathering to better reflect what I call the 'age of soot', and a good number of common-or-garden open wagons and vans of all the Big Four companies, including pre-grouping types, have been added. But here at Stoke Courtenay 2020 is definitely 'the year of the coach', with most modelling time taken up by raising the standard and variety of coaching stock and replacing some older, less accurate models. Recent examples are a C16 clerestory 3rd using Worsley Works etched brass sides, Keen Systems ends and Shapeways 3D printed bogies on an old Hornby donor vehicle, and a D121 low-waisted van 3rd of 1936 using Comet brass sides on a modified Bachmann donor coach. I'm finding these quite challenging, but I'm learning all the time.