It's a Mann's World: Model Behaviour

Olly Mann 5 April 2022

This month Olly Mann finds himself taken aback by his sons' niche interest…

All through the long winter, one date in my diary promised the coming of spring more than any other. No, not March 27—when the clocks go forward. Nor March 20—the dawning of astrological spring. It was, of course, February 12—the annual re-opening of Bekonscot Model Village, Buckinghamshire. Have you never been?

I would certainly recommend it; and not just because, as its website explains, it offers the thrill of "England as it used to be" (this promise, I would argue, could be extended to large swathes of Beaconsfield). 

In my view, the world’s first model village is more relevant than ever: in our Instagram age, it serves up selfie opportunities by the ton ("Look! I’m as tall as a windmill!"); it’s an implicitly socially distant, entirely outdoor experience; and its 1992 decision to model all its scale replica buildings in the style of the 1930s gives it a characteristic architectural charm that seems more relatable than, say, Legoland’s impressive but brash plastic recreations of Big Ben and the Sydney Opera House

It feels like what it is: the garden extension of an eccentric Englishman (Roland Callingham), that somehow became a landmark, frequented by royalty and celebrities, spawning many imitators, without itself having the acreage to expand beyond its original offer. Nestled in a suburban street, you could easily miss it. It doesn’t even have its own car park. This is all part of its appeal.

Oh, and the puns! The wordplay is the best bit: Sam & Ella’s Sweet Shop, Mac & Tosh the tailors, the infant school with its resident caretaker, B. Tidy… it’s a linguist’s dream day out.  Yet none of this explains why its annual re-opening matters. Left to my own devices, I would, like any sane person, be a "once a decade" visitor to this quirky attraction. The reason it matters is because—alongside the pleasingly recreated churches, fun fairs and cottages that dot Bekonscot’s landscape—it has a model railway.

An enormous model railway: 450 metres of track that criss-cross around you, passing under your feet or over the bridges at eye-level; some passenger, some cargo, all simultaneously darting around and about. And my boys (aged two and six) are obsessed with it.

To hardcore fans, it’s known as the Gauge 1 Bekonscot Model Railway—BMR for short. During the 2021 lockdown, the BMR’s re-opening was the nirvana we assured our sons would signify the end of our segregation from society, and they counted down the days accordingly, by endlessly streaming the "driver’s eye view" of the train track video that Bekonscot posted to their YouTube channel in 2009 (1.2m views and counting, so they’re clearly not the only ones watching). 

When actually on-site, our boys occupy hours following the passage of individual locomotives around the gardens. It’s a slightly stressful experience for me: "You’re not supposed to run around!", I keep having to bellow at them—too many elderly visitors, too many delicately-balanced ice cream cones—but it’s also delightful to see such simple pleasures bring them such happiness, and on each visit I wonder if they’ll be equally as excited the next time, when they’re a few months older (they always are).

"It’s delightful to see such simple pleasures bring them such happiness, and on each visit I wonder if they’ll be equally as excited the next time, when they’re a few months older (they always are)"

I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that we have a pair of Portillo-level train nerds living under our roof. This makes Christmas presents easy. If it ain’t by Trackmaster or Brio, it ain’t getting opened until Boxing Day, and it makes filling an hour of downtime pretty straightforward too ("Hey kids! Let’s go to that park bench and watch the Thameslink!").

But, as they get older, it’s putting strain on my brain.

You see, I'm not a train enthusiast, not remotely. I mean, I admire the view of Newcastle from the LNER as much as the next man, and occasionally catch myself humming songs from Starlight Express.

But to keep up with my sons, I’ve had to swot up. Five years ago, I couldn’t have told you whether the Undergound was diesel or electric.

Now? I could comfortably reel off the differences between a Streetcar and Funicular, give a rudimentary rundown of how a signal-box works, and explain why The Flying Scotsman was retired by British Rail. I never thought this would happen to me.

I thought the whole point of having children was to indoctrinate them with MY weird interests: country music, theme parks, chopped salad. I didn’t realise their inclinations would be so strong, so dominant, that both sides of the parent-child nexus would require educating. 

Admittedly, I struggle to suppress my instinct to rush to the gift shop when visiting a railway museum, and I always speed-read my way through the mechanical details of engines because the technical terms hurt my head… but still, I’m slowly matching my sons’ awareness of pistons, pumps and plungers.

The problem is, they keep learning more, too—which means I’m forever playing catch-up, and as I’ve already reached the peak of my curiosity… they will soon surpass my knowledge, forever. 

It’s a humbling thought, and one that (who knew?) is best dealt with by strolling around a bucolic model village. To Bekonscot!

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