Live steam on the 'Coombe Glen Garden Railway' (CGGR) - a nostalgic shot of my final garden railway - click the link to explore it

A brief history of my various model railways

           My father had brought some continental ‘0 gauge’ back from Europe after the war which unusually for the 1940’s was 3-rail electric (but AC not the now familiar DC). Dad kept it in a large wooden box under the stairs and assembled it on the front room carpet, but rarely got it out. I do not count that as my first layout.


Layout 1 – early beginnings in ‘00’ as a teenager

          Was built in the early 1950’s from steel rail obtained by post from a shop in London (possibly ‘Jones’ of Chiswick?), fastened with small metal spikes to predrilled fibre sleepers (both from ‘Peco’ – no ‘Peco streamline’ track in those days!) All this was mounted on a ‘baseboard’ (of sorts) in mother’s very dirty and dusty loft – complete with pigeons and sparrows (and wasps!) nests. As dad had died at a very young age of 48 when I was 10, and left us virtually penniless the only pocket money I had was from 2 paper-rounds – about half of which I gave to mother to help buy food. Needless to say it took me weeks to save up for items – months to save up for the 1 loco this layout had – a ‘Rovex’ (Triang) 08 diesel shunter in black livery.

          The layout had no theme, and was not much more than a glorified test track of an oval with a couple of scratch-built points. Due to the dampness in the loft, running a train round on the steel track was a little like ‘Nov 5th! Emery paper was the only way of cleaning the track – there were no ‘Peco’ track cleaners in those days!

          Not much progress was made on the layout due to a lack of funds and my intensive studies at school, with a determination to study science at a top university. Fortunately 2 of my friends/neighbours had a lot of trains and track, and I was always welcome to ‘play trains’ with them – one had a vast amount of Hornby ‘00’ 3-rail and the other some very new (and to me horrendously expensive) Triang 2-rail express steam locos and a decent amount of track.


Layout 2 – a small loft layout in our (brand new) house

           My interest in railways had never really waned – in fact I worked for British Rail for a short while before I married, and my youngest daughter has worked for the railways now for 25 years.

           After my wife and I bought our first house in the 1960’s, I started to look around to see where I might build a new railway. There was a garage, but it was not attached to the house – it was at the bottom of the garden, so the loft looked the best bet. However being a (small) new house the roof trusses were all in the way, so it was very difficult not only to fit boards in, but more importantly to move around. Despite this a small ‘00’ gauge railway was constructed. I do not remember much about it, except that was basically a circular layout, and powered by a newly purchased H&M controller.

Layout 3 – the formation of the school model railway club and a basic ‘00’ layout

           As luck would have it, several of the 6th form boys at my school were very keen on railways and/or model railways, as was one of their parents, so I was persuaded to start up a school model railway club. The head-master was very supportive and gave us a generous donation and a small attic room to get things started. We started on a small simple layout using ‘Peco’ streamline track and points with some loaned H and M controllers, on which the boys - no girls expressed any interest! - could run their own and others stock, but couldn’t do anything too permanent, as a new school was being built on a completely new site about 2 miles away.


Layout 4 – a move of house and my first ‘N’ gauge layout - ‘Hain and Westrym’

           Meanwhile my wife and I and the 2 children had moved to a larger house, as my wife was expecting our 3rd child. This had much more scope for a model railway, having a much larger garage and a much more usable (and large) loft. Although I had now acquired more ‘00’ stock, ‘N gauge’ had emerged, and I bought a few items to experiment with. My minds was made up, despite knowing I would have to do a lot of scratch-building, I would give it a go, especially as I was impressed with the new ‘Peco’ ‘N gauge’ track and points, and also decided to use the new foam ballast inlay.

This time there was a more definite theme. Location – somewhere in the Western Region with some Southern Region running. Era – last days of steam, with early diesel hydraulics. Initially a ‘tail-chasing’ layout was built with just 2 stations, but with a good continuous run. The 2 stations were ‘Hain’ (the smaller) and ‘Westrym’ (the larger). Most of the buildings were scratch-built. 

           The original (quite small) layout was first exhibited at the Bristol Victoria Rooms in the 1970’s and attracted much interest, being one of the earliest ‘N’ gauge layouts to be seen in public. Like ‘Topsy’ it ‘grew and grew’ and eventually became huge – bigger than many ‘00’ gauge layouts seen at the same venues. Operating it was tricky as it was possible to run up to about 10 or 12 full length trains at the same time, and there were many flat junctions. 14 or 15 coach expresses and very long freights were often seen, and the main fiddle yard had 12 roads, each long enough to accommodate 1 very long train or 2 shorter ones. The control panel was complex with 2 track occupancy indicators on each subdivided fiddle road. The colour light signalling was all dummy but realistic looking, and for a short time due to very few accessories being commercially available I even marketed these, as well as quite a few other (mostly platform) accessories – station trollies/seats/lamps etc..


Layout 5 - grand designs for the school layout in its new premises

             Once we had settled into the new school, I managed to negotiate (with the same supportive Head) the exclusive use of the attic of the old vicarage nearby, which had been acquired temporarily as the sixth form block. Now we had a long term future, a grand exhibition layout was planned and built, and exhibited many times. It was not modelled on any particular era or location, as anything went – because the club members had such a diverse range of stock. It consisted of 6 sturdy 8’ x 4’ boards – a sturdy frame made from 2” x 1” timbers topped with a complete sheet of  ½” 8’ x 4’ medium density chipboard – a single board being too heavy for one person to carry – but then we had plenty of manpower (well at least ‘boy power’) to move them. I also built a trailer of the same size with racks into which the 6 panels fitted for transport. 

             Designed for both continuous running and shunting it had a quadruple track mainline and a through station, and the curves were large enough to even accommodate the ‘speed merchants’ in the club. I cannot now recall the exact track formation, but it certainly had a lot of point-work, including several double slips – it was all code 100 ‘Peco’ track with ‘insul-frog’ points (‘electro-frog’ points from ‘Peco’ did not come until much later). Most of the buildings were scratch-built by the older boys and adult helpers. I was fortunate my second-in-command was a BT engineer, who not only supplied most of the cabling and plugs and sockets (from the cabling 'waste bin') but also wired up the layout. The transistorised controllers were built by myself, having a lifelong interest in electronics, as well as having done physics as part of my degree course. The points were all motorised using ‘Peco’ solenoids operated by the ‘electric pencil’ method.

Layout 6 – downsizing in the loft and back to ‘00’

              Meanwhile, back at home, the huge ‘N’ gauge layout was getting more and more difficult to move and maintain, and also I had been promoted at work – giving me even less spare time. At this point I sold off virtually all of the ‘N’ gauge stuff. I had kept most of my ‘00’ stock and track, and decided to just build a small(ish) blue diesel era layout – again in the loft. This was up and running quite quickly, and more stock bought – much of which was to be seen running on the school layout during the weekly ‘club running session’. It was basically a terminal station leading via a 'triangle' on to a large continuous run. It was set in the BR blue diesel era.


Layout 7 – a move to ‘009’

              Although I did not do much with the loft layout, I had purposely kept a few ‘N’ gauge items with a view to having a ‘dabble’ with 009. I constructed a small portable layout with a Welsh narrow gauge flavour using ‘Peco’ narrow gauge track – plus a few ‘N’ gauge points in the fiddle yard. The locos and stock were all scratch-built on to ‘Graham Farish’ chassis. It all worked remarkably well, and was to influence my modelling some years later.


Layout 8 – an even larger layout for the school club

              The school railway club continued to flourish, but soon came the news long expected, that the vicarage attic was now longer available. This proved a blessing in disguise, as we were offered a very much larger room – a now redundant annex classroom formerly used for rural studies, adjacent to the allotments next to the school. It mean that we could build an even bigger layout!

Sadly, I did not see this through to fruition, as I went down with a very serious illness which almost completely incapacitated me, until the cause was eventually diagnosed 2 years later and a suitable treatment started. By this time I had been forced to take very early retirement from teaching on the grounds of ill-health. My second-in-command took the helm with a couple of the old scholars. Sadly membership declined to a point where the club was disbanded. Remaining club funds were given to charity, and the track and points divided up amongst the 4 or 5 founder members who were still current. Buildings mostly went to those who had made them. The club had never owned any locos or stock.


Layout 9 – a venture into the garden

                While I was recuperating, boredom began to set in, and my thoughts turned again to railways. I had had enough of the extremes of temperature (and the wasp’s nests) in the loft. So with some help, managed to get all the bits of the railway back downstairs, temporarily storing it in the garage.

                I had read quite a few articles about garden railways – including several impressive ‘00’ ones, so tried a few experiments. My garden at that time was very large – 200’ long – but mostly on a slope – gentle near the house, gradually getting steeper, and eventually precipitous at the bottom – ending up on the river-bank (Frome). I decided the railway would need to be children (I had 3), cat (we had about 4) and fox (there were many around) proof, and could even be walked on.

                I firstly constructed a low wall wide enough for at least double track, utilising some spare pieces of limestone slabs from an old patio, topped with about 2” of concrete, with wooden strips cast in at regular intervals, to which the track could be pinned. Initially the track was laid straight on to the concrete, but was later ballasted (exterior PVA being used to fix it). To ensure good conduction, joiners alone were not relied on. ‘Bridge wires’ were soldered on to the underside near the end of each length of track. This was very effective and as I was gradually getting stronger a complete circuit was then built – roughly 120’ in total.

                By this time my children were in their teens or working, and my wife had gone back to work part time. I was well enough now to do some part time music lessons, but this still left me plenty of time to work on the railway.

                This railway became huge – multi track, multi level, many junctions, with several stations – large and small, goods yards, industrial sidings, a big loco depot, working multiple aspect signalling and a huge control panel (all designed and built by myself) in the large greenhouse near the bottom of the garden, together with storage sidings in the garage at the top end of the garden.

                This was entirely a blue era BR layout. Amongst my stock were 2 complete full length HSTs in different liveries with powered cars at each end. Several 12+ coach passenger trains, parcel trains and long rakes of aggregate and container wagons etc… Haulage was predominately Western Region Diesels – especially hydraulics – Westerns/Warships together with class 47s/31s/45s and a variety of DMUs and shunters. Steam specials were occasionally allowed. With 2 or 3 operators, up to 6 or 7 trains could be run simultaneously.    

It soon became apparent that something/somebody was doing serious damage to the railway during the night, so a ‘watch’ was mounted to solve the mystery. As suspected the local foxes proved to be the culprits, they were observed in sometimes groups of as many as 7 or 8 pulling at and biting the wiring, digging up and otherwise damaging the track, and demolishing the colour light signals, not to mention using the track as a toilet.

Layout 10 – a move into the garage

                As track cleaning was also becoming more and more time consuming, the decision was made to build a much smaller layout at waist height in the garage. As much less track would be needed, much was sold off.

               The garage was a large one and was able to accommodate a circuit of quadruple track with a station down one side, and some storage sidings down the other. The garage had a shed attached to the side, and a stone terminal branched off into it. There were a lot of cross-overs and interesting movements could be made in the station area. The 4 road station platforms were sufficiently long to accommodate a full length HST (7xMk IIIs + 2 power cars).  

               After a while the ‘tail chasing’ became a bit boring – even with ‘lane swapping’ and it was decided to extend out of the front end of the garage into the ‘secure compound’ where I stored my motor bike between the carport and the garage. This would enable a slightly longer continuous run, and also incorporated a very useful ‘reversing loop’. Fortunately I had retained most of the points and point motors from railway no 9.

               In turn the layout was also extend out of the ‘back end’ of the garage, along the side of the large pond I had built after the large garden railway was taken up. This was just a single line branch, and being almost 6’ off the ground was pretty fox proof. It was a ‘Newquay’ style branch – accommodating visits from a regular HST service as well as DMUs. A track plan – as far as I can remember it, of the final version of this layout can be viewed at the bottom of the page

Layout 11 – a move to a larger scale and ‘live steam’ - the ‘Fromeside Garden Railway’ [FGR]

                As I was now able to undertake employment again, I had less time for the railway, and dismantled both of the outside extensions of no 10.

                Out of the blue, a work acquaintance of mine invited to a charity event at his house. When my wife and I arrived we were ushered straight into the (tiny) back garden, where everyone seemed to be looking down at something. I knew Gerald was a fellow railway buff, but he had never let on he had a small railway in his garden, and it was running live steam locos – well actually they spent more time coming off than staying on the track, but the 2 locos he had looked very impressive.

                Gerald could see I was very interested and later phoned me up to invite me over for a ‘private’ running session – I also took along one of my grandsons. This time I was ‘hands on’ but was very nervous about the state of his track – it was the worst track laying I have ever seen! We had a long discussion and he gave me several valuable sources of information should I want to take things further.

                His railway was to 16mm scale – running on 32mm track (equivalent to 2’ narrow gauge as used by many of the north Wales n.g. railways), but I soon learnt about the dilemma of whether to use 32mm or 45mm track (as used by ‘G’ scale )

                The plunge was taken a couple of months later – I decided on 32mm as being more logical – and a lot cheaper to build, and purchased some lengths of brass rail, cut some hardwood sleepers and spiked some rail on to them. Fortunately the main old quadruple track base from the ‘00’ railway was still in place and was the ideal place to put a straight section of 32mm test track. I also constructed 3 points and built a temporary station platform from strips of timber. In all about 6 metres of double track, a crossover and a siding.

                Now something to run on it! I purchased a couple of wagon kits and a motorised (battery) chassis on which I built a freelance diesel body. Success – it all ran well, even running smoothly through the points. I built a few more metres of track and extended a single track part way round the old ‘00’ circuit – we now had about 15 metres run in total.

                What we need now is a real steam loco. A call to Gerald, and a visit was arranged. He duly arrived with 2 live steam locos and some very nice looking all metal coaches. It all ran perfectly, and we even managed to film it.

                I am not going to continue this story, as this railway, although no more (we had to move house) has its own website which you are welcome to visit by clicking on this link. The railway is also featured on one of the annual videos produced by the 16mm Association for its members.


Layout 12 – down sizing to a new house and new garden railway - the ‘Coombe Glen Garden Railway’ [CGGR]

                A move of house led to the design and building of my 2nd Garden Railway. Having now had several years experience of 16mm there were many more firm ideas in my head before I started.

                No 11 was a mature garden which had a miniature railway built into it. This one no 12 was the reverse – the railway was planned and built and the garden landscaped round it. It featured several times in the ‘Garden Rail’ magazine. Again it has its own website which if you click on this link will give you more of the story.


Layout 13 – taking live steam out and about - the portable 16mm railway

                As a member of the ‘National Association of 16mm Modellers’ and our local ‘Severn Mendip’ Group I visited various Garden Railways, but was aware that rarely was a 16mm layout seen at a Model railway exhibition. There were a very small number on the exhibition circuit, so my local group built its own ‘Mendip Vale’ which has been widely exhibited, and this can be seen on the Severn Mendip website by clicking on this link ‘Mendip Vale' was huge and took a large team to move and operate it. What was also needed was a smaller (and lighter!) portable layout.

                I decided to plan and build such a layout. It was built of 4’ x 2’ sections which slotted together with a system of ‘tongues and grooves’. For added security each ‘tongue’ was locked into its ‘groove’ with a long screw. The layout was ‘modular’ – i.e. could be used in different lengths and widths. The smallest version was 24’ long x 8’ wide. The largest 32’ x 12’. Each board had a ply top and a lightweight wooden frame, ‘Peco’ track and points were used and it was fully ballasted. Even with the track the boards were still only 2 ½” deep and would just fit stacked into the back of the average 5 door car. I used bubble wrap between the boards to protect them. A set of trestles were also made, but never used, as all the venues visited had tables which we made use of (or church pews in the case of my local church – which we visited regularly).

                Although single track, there was a small station with a passing loop on one side, and another passing loop and a halt on the opposite side. The 32’ version (which we mostly used) had a loco depot and some sidings, where shunting was possible. All the scenic items were transported separately, and I was ably assisted by friends mostly from the local 16mm group who helped with transport, assembly and running. It was set up and operated several times by just 2 people. An interesting video was made of one of its appearances at my local church. With the 32’ version we often had 2 engines in steam and a battery powered diesel working in the yard. People at local fetes seemed to absolutely love seeing (and hearing) the live steam engines.


Layout 14 – the garage 16mm railway

                Sadly I had started to experience a series of very small strokes, and after lots of brain scans was diagnosed with a terminal brain disease, which could give me a massive stroke at any time. My brain was gradually dying, and if I didn’t die quickly I would experience gradual mental decline. I was put on preventative medication and my consultant told me to put my affairs in order – will/arrange power of attorney etc… My disease is very unpredictable, not affecting all parts of the brain equally, and at the time of writing (6 years after the diagnosis) I still have not had that massive stroke, but some parts of my brain are now very badly affected, especially short term memory, but other parts thankfully are as yet little affected. The consultant did however advise getting rid of my steam locos on safety grounds – and he was right, I have had a few incidents/accidents in the kitchen with gas/heat.

                The ‘CGGR’ was gradually dismantled and sold off. The original circuit at the top of the garden was left until last, so that I still had something to run on for another 12 months. This was finally taken up and a new ‘inside’ 16mm layout started in the garage. This was ‘battery’ diesels and a few trucks only – mostly for use by the grandchildren.


Layout 15 – the second garage railway - ‘Hain and Westrym’ mk2

                The grandchildren grew up and lost interest, so I finally sold off the remaining 16mm items at one of our ‘Severn Mendip’ AGMs. For a while the garage remained – well - a garage. But then my youngest grand-daughter Abi started showing a very keen interest in trains (she was only a baby when I sold my last trains, so never knew of my hobby) and just before her 3rd Christmas, her mum asked her what she was going to ask Santa for – ‘a train set’ – she replied. Mum was shocked (even though she works for Network Rail) but Santa duly delivered, but Abi was not very happy with the ‘toy’ plastic train set which arrived. So just after Christmas I saw a Hornby Thomas set on offer and bought it.

                It was like Christmas had come all over again – but better. This was a proper electric powered train which she didn’t have to push – she loved it. As I had not even had any very small strokes over the last couple of years, and was getting very bored with no railway project, I made the decision to build another garage railway, knowing it would almost certainly be my last.

                I was very impressed with the modern ‘00’ models coming out of the far east – especially from Bachmann – so decided to start afresh in ‘00’, with a compact layout on a pulley system, which could be lowered right down to my youngest grand-daughter’s level.

                The baseboard and pulley system was designed and built, only to find that the ½” chipboard I had used as the working surface was too weighty for me to pull the system up and down, but also had warped the timber frame. So the chipboard was replaced by marine grade 3mm ply – which fortunately I managed to obtain at a discount – buying all as standard 4’x2’ sheets – which I subsequently had cut to size, as no part of the baseboard is as wide as 24”.

                The results can be judged from the pics on this website - please click on this link

Railway no 9 Eastville '00' gauge garden railway (part 1 - in the large greenhouse  - furthest from the house)  This was a huge railway and the 3 track diagrams need to be imagined joined together. This one continues on to part 2 below.
Railway no 9 Eastville '00' gauge garden railway (part 2 - the largest central section in the large garden)  This was a huge railway and the 3 track diagrams need to be imagined joined together. This one continues on to part 3 below - which needs to be imagined turned through 180 degrees.
Railway no 9 Eastville '00' gauge garden railway (part 3 - the final storage section nearest the house - the storage loops in the garage) this diagram needs to be imagined with the storage loops at the bottom (they were nearest the house)
Railway no 10  Eastville garage '00' gauge railway track diagram

Railway no 12

Plan of the 16mm to the foot 'Narrow Gauge' 'Coombe Glen Garden Railway' (CGGR) almost in its final form. There was a 25' section of mainline with a GWR 'pagoda' halt added, which ran along the very bottom of the diagram.