From meta models of models to fantastical landscapes and replicas of much-loved locations, the UK’s quaint and quirky miniature villages continue to be a big draw. The UK is home to more than 30 miniature villages, ranging from hobbyists to full-blown tourist attractions employing professional engineers. They can be found in weather-beaten coastal resorts, picturesque villages nestled in rolling hills or as complements to major tourist attractions such as Land’s End or Blenheim Palace. Or even just an enthusiast’s garden.
Brian Salter, author of Models Towns and Villages, said: “People love going to model villages because we like things in miniatures, we all had toys and there is a nostalgia and old worldliness to them. And people like making models because it is a way to build and own something you love when you could never have the real thing.”
Generally accepted as the world’s first model village, Bekonscot in Beaconsfield opened in August 1929 when Roland Callingham – under instruction from his wife – moved his model railway from his home to a neighbouring garden.
This is an ordinary everyday tale of a wealthy accountant living in Buckinghamshire who was slightly obsessed with trains and whose wife gave him an ultimatum to declutter the house! In 1927, Mr Roland Callingham, a London accountant, instructed gardeners to dig a swimming pool at his home in Beaconsfield. The pool and tennis courts were used for garden parties, attended by the high society of London. Politicians, minor royals, aristocrats and the movers and shakers of the era would come out for a breath of country air. In 1928, Mrs Callingham made a short but moving speech which suggested that either the indoor model railway went, or she did. The model railway moved outdoors.
Bekonscot was first created by Beaconsfield resident, accountant Roland Callingham (1881–1961), in the 1920s. Roland developed the master plan for his miniature empire as an addition to his large back garden, drawing in help from his staff: the gardener, cook, maid and chauffeur. Together they developed the model landscape portraying rural England at the time. The swimming pool became the first “sea” and the undulating rockeries were built up as hills. Bassett-Lowke, the well-known large-scale model railway manufacturers, were commissioned to build an extensive Gauge 1 railway network, which exists to this day. Callingham named the village ‘Bekonscot’ after Beaconsfield and Ascot where he previously lived.
Bekonscot is the oldest model village in the world. Portraying rural England in the 1930’s, time has stood still in this wonderland of make-believe, which is 81 years old. Visitors meander through six villages, each with their miniature population going about their daily routines. There are many moving models including a fine Gauge 1 model railway which runs throughout the 1.5 acre site. There is also a sit-on railway running weekends and school holidays (small extra charge). Bekonscot has been run by the Church Army since 1978 and donates large amounts of money to charity. It has raised the equivalent of almost £5,000,000 so far and has been visited by more than 14,000,000 visitors.
These days Bekonscot is a popular visitor attraction in Buckinghamshire and if you go by car you park in the grounds of St. Theresa’s Catholic Church opposite which has a memorial window to a Catholic convert, the writer G K Chesterton
Interestingly there is a model of the church in the model village which was actually completed before the real thing! Chesterton had come to Beaconsfield in 1909, and he lived here until his death on June 14 1936. Some of his best-know books, therefore, were written from there. His coming to the town had been the result of chance. He took a ticket at Paddington Station for the next train that would be leaving. It went to Slough, a strange place even for a train to go to, he remarked. From there, accompanied by his wife, he walked to Beaconsfield. They both decided that that was the place where they would like to live. His gravestone by the sculptor Eric Gill, being damaged by the weather, was replaced by a replica and the original is embedded in the side wall of
Bekonscot is acknowledged to be the inspiration for many other model villages and miniature parks across the world, including Babbacombe, Southport, Tucktonia, Madurodam, Bourton-on-the-Water, Wimborne, Great Yarmouth, Clonakilty and Mini-Europe. As such, it is regarded as the “grandfather” of the model village and miniature park movement.
It was not conceived as a commercial visitor attraction but as a plaything to entertain Roland and his guests. It was only after 1930 that its existence became widely known, catching the imagination of the press and public alike. Frequent newsreels such as Pathe, international and national newspaper coverage ensure a steady stream of visitors, all of whom were invited to make a donation to the Railway Benevolent Institution. Early visitors were neighbours from nearby Windsor, Queen Mary and her granddaughters the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.
The village expanded in size throughout the first half of the 20th Century. Callingham sold off much of the land surrounding the model village, all of which is now a housing estate. The village is now entirely surrounded by urban development so further expansion is impossible. Bekonscot popularised the miniature park movement, put Beaconsfield on the map and has a continuing financial legacy in donations to charitable organisations both national and local.
Names of shops and other features include humorous puns, such as Lee Key Plumbers’ Merchants (‘Lee Key’ = ‘leaky’), Sam and Ella’s Butchers (‘salmonella’) and the Mark Owney Wireless and Gramophone stores (‘Marconi’). Other model villages have run with the playful nature of the miniature business names and it has become something of a model tradition. My own personal favourite infamous puns were the Greengrocer “Chris P. Lettis (Crispy lettuce), the delivery van from the grocers U.R.A. Peach and the painter Juan Coat (one coat). Upun my word!
Bekonscot is famed for its complex outdoor model railway (in Gauge 1), possibly the largest public garden railway in the UK, at ten scale miles. A custom-built PC-based interface controls the block signalling system, directing up to 12 trains at any one time on prototypical routes. In addition there are two manual lever frames, one ex-BR and the other from London Underground. The British Rail lever frame is still in use as a manual override for the trains. Some original Bassett-Lowke stock from the 1930s is still in daily use, albeit with new running gear. Many of these trains have significant historical value. Some have been running for over 50 years, each covering about 2,000 miles (3,200 km) per year.
It is really a folk park in miniature, a part of Buckinghamshire in the 1930’s preserved by the inspired folly of a slightly eccentric gentleman. It almost didn’t survive. It took a three year court battle with local planners ending in 1952 before the judges decided the village should remain open. The famous children’s author Enid Blyton was one of the village’s greatest fans and was a friend of Roland Callingham.
She lived in Beaconsfield in a house called Green Hedges, named by Blyton’s readers following a competition in “Sunny Stories”, from 1938 until shortly before her death in 1968. Her book the Enchanted Village is illustrated with pictures of children towering over the tiny models. Her house Green Hedges was demolished after her death (the site became Blyton Close) but is reproduced in the village with Noddy in his car in the driveway and a figure of Enid Blyton typing on an old fashioned typewriter in the garden. Her books have enjoyed popular success in many parts of the world, and have sold over 600 million copies. Enid Blyton is the fifth most translated author worldwide: over 3544 translations of her books were available in 2007 according to UNESCO’s Index Translationum; she overtook Vladimir Lenin to get the fifth place behind Shakespeare.
Today on entering the village you are greeted by a Mark I railway carriage which serves as the ticket office and also a souvenir shop as you leave. There is also a “station” for BLR (Bekonscot Light Railway) which is a sit on train on a 7 ¼ inch narrow gauge track which kids can ride on for 90p. In its 1 ½ acres it has the equivalent of 10 miles of railway with 7 stations, a tramway and cable car and 6 distinct “villages” with a racecourse, farmyard, coal mine, castle, windmill, archaeology site and so much more.
At the back there is a play and picnic area and refreshment kiosk and sheltered seating. The train track can have up to 12 trains in service all controlled from the full size Maryloo Signal Box. All this set in a 1:12 fairyland which is a little piece of England frozen in time. This isn’t just preserving England’s heritage bit after 81 years and 14m visitors it is part of England’s heritage. It is open from mid-February to the end of October and every kid, young and old, should go and discover the magic of Bekonscot for themselves.
Admission; adults £8.50
Child (2-15) £5.00
Under 2 FREE
Jnct 2 – M40 (jnct 16 M25) A40 & A355 Follow signs Model Village.
Several routes from surrounding areas – Traveline +44 (0)8706 082 608
London Marylebone – High Wycombe Beaconsfield -Banbury – Birmingham.
Information: +44 (0)8705 165 165
Bekonscot Model Village Postcode for Satnav: HP9 2PL
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