We are very fortunate that the history of the British Isles railway system has generally been very well documented through the years. There are exceptions of course, and when you start doing detailed research on well known lines and or stations or locomotives you can find blank areas of information, where you have to make educated guesses, perhaps using known standard practices from an earlier railway company or region.
When embarking on a new project I do enjoy the search through books and maps and going through boxes of pictures at exhibitions looking for data I don’t have. This is all well and good if you have a clear idea of what you want to model, but sometimes there’s ‘modelers block’, where you may have one or two ideas that are germinating but no clear path to follow. This is where the wide range of photo album books can pay huge dividends. Some are quite expensive it has to be said, but it’s still worth remembering that there are Libraries, and are an underutilized resource by many researchers. I have found them a particularly good source for information, especially for their local areas. They will know of local authors, books, museums and societies, who may have those little golden nuggets of information you’re looking for.
Let me give you a couple of examples. I am researching two projects, one of which will almost certainly be built. The two stations are geographically far removed, Ayot, in Hertfordshire, and Meldon, Northumberland. For both of these stations I was familiar with the location, and had found some images through contacts, and books. Where the libraries came into their own was when I asked if they had mapping of the station areas. In both cases they were able to provide at very little cost, copies of Ordnance Survey maps which included the track plans. These gave rise to being able to work out how the station was actually worked, how shunting moves were restricted for example. The internet is another source, the search engines providing quick access to images, these are particularly good for current era modelers, though there are some stunning examples of 50’s and 60’s work now appearing. These will help enormously in determining coloring and weathering for specific eras. Unfortunately the further in time you travel the less is available, and it is a transient data source, if you find info you need, always save it, as one day the site/site owner may be gone.
So returning to books, and the header picture, this image shows three of my favorite rail related subjects, a transition era diesel, a map of Northumberland, one of my preferred areas, and a good photo album book. It’s the book that really for me holds all three items together, and if ever on desert island discs, it’d be my book choice. So what’s so special about this sort of book for me as a modeler? The title is ‘Modern’, in fact it was published in 1980 and reflects the era of the diesel transition, through branch line operations across the UK covering the previous 20 years. The image quality and variation of subject matter is key. There are few ¾ front platform edge shots, as not only does the book reflect the change in motive power and rolling stock, it covers the infrastructure too, showing how that deteriorated and changed too. The book is well laid out and there is a geographic progression through it, in general terms it’s south to north so there’s a logic to how the book flows as you read it. The captioning covers basic train details and a line or two on the branch line in question, enough to get you thinking in more detail about the images, and the history behind them. The book therefore forms the key for me, as you turn the pages its beginning to make me think, ‘that lines of interest’ or I can do that train formation with manufacturer X, Y or Z’s loco, and rolling stock or kits from other manufacturers. The landscape nature of the pictures will tell me a bit about if I’m going to have to consider flat scenery, hills, mountains, urban, rural, industry in the scenic makeup, also can I use kits, what buildings are available, how many do I need to build to capture the flavor of the area?
For me some of the most effective models are those where you can look at them without a train on scene, and immediately think, that’s Somerset/London/West Highlands and Scotland in the 1960’s/70’s because the modeler has captured the scene so well. To pick a few examples from recent published layouts would include Saffron Street and South Pimlico for London, Catcott Burtle, Bath Green Park and Engine Wood for Somerset, and Lochside and Burntisland for Scotland. There are of course a good few other layouts that have appeared on line, in magazines and exhibitions that immediately give a ‘time and place’ feel. Two essential elements of the time and place come from the buildings, many regions of the country provided local materials for the construction of the railways and their infrastructure, for example Kings Cross and some of the suburban stations on the Great Northern route out of London were built from London Yellow brick, and are still extant today. To capture the location a modeler should consider how to replicate that, a Great Northern suburban station made from stone for example would look completely out of place. A photo album allows you to look at and absorb detail, sometimes without really being conscious of it. I realized that one day when looking for models of platform barrows, ok perhaps a bit esoteric, but I realized that the Coopercraft GWR trolleys looked ‘wrong’ on a layout that depicted East Anglia.
It wouldn’t have been the end of the world to leave them, but to me removing them actually made more sense. I subsequently found a set of LNER etched platform barrows from the London Road range and substituted these in place. A more common kind of example is the modern car, in a 1950’s car park. As modelers we are very fortunate that we are now seeing more road vehicles becoming available that are appropriate to different eras.
A further area of research to explore that is extremely useful, is societies that deal with the historical side of railways. Most of the major companies that operated in the UK have a society of some kind, and they vary in their modeling content as they will have members who collect railwayana, academic type study, and those who use the society to make their modeling more accurate. Many of the socities attend exhibitions, and they can be a wonderful resource both of data they hold and publish in their own magazines and web pages, but also providing a link to an expert or authority on particular subjects, be it a particular class of locomotive or the company architecture. The Historical Model Railway Society, is a good place to start, they have a large amount of data themselves and their links through to other societies and model manufacturers is a very useful tool for the researcher.
With the use of the internet increasing, it’s worth remembering that there is still a large amount of analogue data, in the form of books, photographs and maps that is available. For example the maps for Ayot and Meldon mentioned earlier simply weren’t available on line, or in any easily accessible digitized format that I’m aware of. Actually going to the local museums and seeing the maps allowed me to copy them, cross reference and make notes from other maps I didn’t need, and pick the brains of the librarians to see if they knew of any local authors or history groups/societies that may have extra data. It’s these sorts of details that provide a keystone to making a layout that can really capture that elusive quality of atmosphere, and what I’m trying to achieve with Albion Yard. When I make a layout or building or an item of rolling stock that is one of my main criteria to try to achieve, and the background research, from photo album books and other non internet sources is essential in my attempts to reach those goals.