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The train will shortly be arriving in 1983: a boyhood rebuilt in Britain’s biggest model railway

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

As lockdown projects go, it doesn’t get much bigger than a 60-metre long model railway.

When Simon George set about re-creating his favourite childhood spot from 1983, he had no idea it would expand to become the biggest of its kind in Britain.

“I suppose all of us as kids always had somewhere that we’d go to, whether outside a corner shop or in a park,” said 53-year-old George, who lives in Ripon, North Yorkshire.

“But where I used to go when I was a kid was a railway junction, just near Mirfield in West Yorkshire. I used to spend a lot of time there, watching the trains go past, and it left an indelible impact on my memory.”

Six years and an estimated £250,000 later, this image has been translated in minute detail into model form – including a miniature version of 12-year-old George – and will be exhibited in Wakefield Market Hall from 4 to 19 December.

Simon George with his model railway layout, which cost about &#xa3;250,000 to build.
Simon George with his model railway layout, which cost about £250,000 to build. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Having never built a model railway before, George began the model in 2015 as a hobby. But after selling his share of a supercar driving experience company two and a half years ago, he threw himself into the project and worked on it doggedly during lockdown.

He said: “I don’t think there’s anybody daft enough to go to the extremes I’ve gone to in some of the detail that’s built-in.”

To get it exactly right, he downloaded hundreds of images of that stretch of the line in the 80s and used them to create a map that became his guide for the project, called Heaton Lodge Junction, built in O gauge or 7mm to 1ft.

The detail that came from that includes a tiny 1980s Tesco carrier bag caught in a tree and 5,000 custom-made brass fern leaves, which were individually put in place and bent to the right shape. The model trains even emit fake diesel fumes and have speakers that produce the sound of real trains.

“I think if you’re going to do something, you’ve got to give it 100%,” he said.

A detail from Heaton Lodge Junction. &#x002018;If you&#x002019;re going to do something, you&#x002019;ve got to give it 100%,&#x002019; says creator Simon George.
A detail from Heaton Lodge Junction. ‘If you’re going to do something, you’ve got to give it 100%,’ says creator Simon George. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Those who have seen it so far have been “gobsmacked”.

“As people walk through the door, they’re confronted by a really well-lit basement with an enormous model as far as the eye can see. It does knock them back sometimes. It’s a nice reaction,” he said.

“It’s funny because when it’s up and running and you glance up, it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up because it’s just like being back in 1983.”

After Wakefield, George plans to take the layout on the road to cities all over the UK, although it needs three articulated trucks to transport it. “It’s just finding somewhere big enough,” he added.

George Dent, the editor of Model Rail magazine, said that although the Yorkshireman’s model is likely to be the biggest of its type in the UK, lots of people are shy about their passion for the hobby, and there may be larger ones in barns or large houses all across the country.

Simon George downloaded hundreds of images of Heaton Lodge Junction in the 1980s to get the details right for his model railway.
Simon George downloaded hundreds of images of Heaton Lodge Junction in the 1980s to get the details right for his model railway. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

He said: “We know of some very famous people who have a closet interest in model railways, but they don’t seem to be keen on sharing it. Rod Stewart might be open about his passion, but not everyone else is willing to admit to it, which is a real shame – especially in the present climate, when we’re all realising the benefits of crafts and hobbies.”

George kept his own project secret, he said, and for a long time did not even tell his girlfriend what he was up to. But he is keen to do his bit to dispel the idea that the hobby is only for nerds.

“I just really want to play a very small part to improve the image of the hobby, which has suffered. It’s been a bit of a figure of fun the last few decades,” he said.

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