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Railway modelling but perhaps not as we knew it!

The other Saturday night I went along to the Margate Winter Gardens to see several of the bands I used to listen to back in the 60s in a show entitled ‘Sixties Gold’. Now I do know that there are those that say that if you remember the 60s then you were not there. Well I certainly was there and all those lost and forgotten memories came pouring back when ‘The Fortunes’, ‘The Searchers’ and artists like Spencer Davis, Chip Hawkes and P. J. Proby each sung the songs that made them famous; songs which are now well over 50 years old. And if the songs are that old then the artists were well into their seventies but they each still had that spark and passion that made them the stars that they were and undoubtedly still are. Mind you, a couple had possibly enjoyed some of the more dubious parts of the music business but even taking that into account they could still play a good tune and belt out a great song or two!

The next morning I was up well before the lark and heading to the Festival of Railway Modelling at Peterborough, a show that I have attended on many occasions as an exhibitor but never as a visitor and I was really looking forward to just having a leisurely look around. As I headed towards Peterborough I had playing on my iPod a whole selection of 60s music which kept me in the nostalgic mood that had been set in motion by the events of the night before. Were things better then than they are now, was my train of thought and after due consideration, I decided that they were. Mobile phones, computers, 24 hour TV, 100+ TV channels and of course the enormous flat screens that light up many a room have all contributed to us all being better informed and aware of what is happening in todays’ world. OK, perhaps 100+ TV channels are too many but a constant flow of news always on tap, keeping us all up to date on the events of the world has to be a good thing, hasn’t it? Then there are all the improvements with regards to health and medication etc. that are available now but not in the 60s. On the other hand, there have possibly been some new sicknesses and diseases that might have been created from the casualness of the 60s but on balance and in my opinion things were better. However, I wondered, as I got closer to Peterborough if this applied to all things in life especially in the world of model railways. Who these days is a modeller? Does he or she have the same modelling skills of the modeller of say 50, 40 or even 30 years ago? In those days if you wanted a specific model you either had to scratch build it or if one was available obtain a kit and build it, and knowing some of the kits that were available in those days that was a challenge in itself! On the other hand are the skills of yesterday really required in today’s world?

I did leave that thought behind me as I walked into the exhibition hall and was greeted by Andy York from RMWeb. We exchanged the usual pleasantries but I was anxious to get going and have a really good look around the show. I did notice the lecture area and took note of two or three lectures that I really wanted to attend. The first one that caught my eye was to be presented by Dennis Lovett, PR Executive of Bachmann, and then there was one later in the afternoon concerning the Hornby Live Steam system. However it was the last one I wanted to listen to as it appeared to be particularly relevant to my musings earlier in the day in respect of diminishing skill levels in railway modelling. This lecture was to be presented by Tony Wright, a person whom I have admired for many years not only for his modelling skills but also his superb photography.

For the rest of the morning I wandered around the exhibition looking at the layouts, flicking through a few books and talking to a good many people and so engrossed was I that I missed Dennis Lovett’s talk which was a disappointment for me but I was determined not to miss either the Live Steam presentation or possibly more importantly, Tony’s. Aware that time does vanish when one is enjoying oneself I kept a watchful eye on the clock and at the allotted time I sat myself at the rear of the presentation area waiting for the final two lectures of the day to commence, the first being Live Steam. Tony’s lecture followed directly after the Live Steam presentation and I waited with growing fascination as Tony began to prepare for his presentation.

Whether Tony is talking to an audience or just on a one to one basis he is always entertaining and I have to say that his ‘Talk’ did not disappoint. As I have written Tony is an incredibly accomplished modeller, therefore it is understandable that the main thrust of his lecture was that due to the ever increasing improvements of models, both in running and detail the modelling skill base for kit building and the like is sadly slipping away. He made comment that certain locomotive kit manufacturers were seeing the demand for their models diminishing with some of them actually have to close. I have to admit that even before my thoughts earlier in the morning I had over the last few years begun to be concerned that due to the high quality of the RTR models being produced these days, the modelling skills used by many over the years were slowly disappearing because simply they were just not required, certainly and most noticeably where locomotive building was concerned.

I have mentioned in a previous blog that at one time those at Triang Railways and then later Hornby Railways considered that the Margate based factory made ‘rather nice’ toy trains, which a modeller could change, adapt and adjust to create a passable model. In those days there were companies like Crownline Model Products, based in Maidenhead who produced parts and kits of parts so that such ‘toys’ could be converted to models with just a little bit of time, an element of skill and possibly more than a smattering of patience. Then there were the white metal kits of locomotives. Not always the easiest of things to put together but I am sure that a good number were sold and some may even have been finished! However, like Tony Wright I just wonder how many ‘00’ white metal kits of an A3 or an A4 are sold these days when such excellent R-T-R interpretations are available straight off the shelf. Of course, if for example the R-T-R A3 purchased does not have the name or number that an individual requires then these details can always be changed but how many new modellers of today have the simple skills to do just that compared to two or three decades ago? I am sure there are more than a few modellers out there who can do such a task without too much trouble but for those who cannot there are businesses that will gladly do the changing and give the model a coat of ‘weathering’ at the same time for a small additional fee, thus making life easier for the locomotive’s owner! Much better to let the professionals do the job for a small fee rather than damage an expensive model through lack of experience. Or is it? If that is the attitude then those that should will never learn the basic skills and with that in mind are they missing out on the finer parts of railway modelling?

Days gone by there were possibly a few willing modellers who would financially support their hobby by taking on the odd ‘commission’ from fellow club members but on the whole those that wanted to make changes would have a go themselves or else it would not happen. It is like so many things in life, experience by trial and error create improvements and help to develop ones skill level. We all have started somewhere. When I was a youngster I remember building my first Airfix kit; it was a Spitfire (weren’t they always) and like anyone who builds their first plastic kit I got more glue on the outside of the kit than on the parts that were meant to hold the thing together. When I built it I remember feeling so pleased with myself. When I looked at the model I did not see what others saw which was an amorphous shape that was more an accident of fate than a model. What I saw and felt was a great sense of achievement at completing my first model but I resolved that the next one I built I would try not get so much glue on the wings, with the next model after that being even better, as would the one after that! In other words practice made perfect - well nearly! And I was no different from many others including Tony Wright, as we all had to start somewhere. Some like Tony improved to a point where modelling seemed to become an art form while for us mere mortals we were and are happy with what we can achieve knowing that the next time we would do it even better. One of the more recent innovations of model railway exhibitions are the areas where enthusiasts can talk to the experts and see how things are done with events like ‘RMWeb Live’ being just perfect for such demonstrations. In many cases what the visitors see are usually some fairly simple techniques, which we can all do with a little practice and the most important tool there is, patience.

On more than one occasion when I was working the Hornby Roadshow I would have conversations with new enthusiasts who when commenting on some of the exhibits would say that they could not possibly model to such a high level. My answer would always be that how would they know if they did not try? We all have to learn and I would literally encourage them to just have a go and try and reassure them by saying that if they messed it up just try again; it was not a competition, it’s a hobby! For example I would suggest that if they were to take a Skaledale building such as a house and just repaint the door and add some lichen to the walls to simulate ivy that could be their first project. Not difficult but quite satisfying, which in turn could lead them on to something a little more adventurous. Modelling is really a question of evolution. I remember when I was in Australia being shown a layout that the owner had started in the late 70s, and it really was an excellent example of an individual’s modelling development. He showed me some of the older parts of the layout and guided me through the various development stages of his layout and I could see how little by little his skill level had improved, to a point where he was returning to the older parts and redeveloping them to his current level of expertise. A never ending story so to speak!

So how would anyone in this day and age start to build his or her competency in modelling? I have already mentioned enhancing a Skaledale model but there are also the models that make up the Hornby RailRoad range. One of the reasons for the existence of this brand is to provide relatively low cost locomotives and rolling stock for those who wish to try their hand at some model enhancement. I recall Tony Wright taking a RailRoad 9F and after a couple of nights work and a dusting of weathering he had created a really impressive model; not that it wasn’t already impressive to begin with!! And if RailRoad is still too rich for you, visit the second hand stalls present at most exhibitions and buy some old wagons, take them home, add metal wheels (they just pop in) and then try your hand at weathering, you might just be surprised at the results. The tools and the subjects are there as well as a massive amount of help and guidance from books and the model press. Every month in virtually every model railway magazine there is a simple step-by-step modelling project for the novice to tackle and consequently over time there is no real reason why the skill level for modelling railways should die away.

Returning to my original thought concerning whether things are better now than they were in the 60s? I am tempted to still believe that they are and that includes modelling. True, there may not be so many locomotive kits being built these days due to reasons already mentioned, however there are still quite a few modelling skills that can be learnt and a great deal of satisfaction achieved in other areas when creating a model railway layout. Therefore to my mind the skill level in railway modelling, although not quite what it was can still be seen but manifesting itself in other areas. And for those who may still be a bit nervous about ‘doing a bit’, just remember it only takes practice, time and a little patience, after all I am sure that even Isambard Kingdom Brunel had to start somewhere!

On a totally different note, I was at the Hornby offices a couple of weeks ago and found myself walking through the old factory area. After manufacturing ceased a large area to the back of the building was used for warehousing and shipping, however that part of the building is now empty as Hornby has completely moved its warehousing and despatch facility to new and modern premises not far from Canterbury; a move which will improve efficiency and service to their customers. For all the right reasons the transfer had to happen but all the same it was sad for me to see all the empty space as it brings to a close just one more chapter in the continuing and evolving story that is Hornby.

And on that cheerful note…………. enjoy your modelling!


© KOHLERcoms

Simon Kohler has been associated with the world of models and model railways for over 50 years, 35 of which have been with Hornby Hobbies mainly as Marketing Manager for the Hornby brand.

Now working as an independent consultant to the models and hobbies industry, Simon hosts the “Simon Says” blog and welcomes constructive comments on any of the points raised.

All comments made on this blog are personal views expressed by Simon and may sometimes be in conflict with those held by Hornby.

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