Interviews

The inside track on one of London’s most niche festivals

The biggest festival for railway modelling returns annually to Ally Pally – Miriam Balanescu speaks with the event’s organiser to find out more

For those of us uninitiated in the world of railway modelling, it may seem like a relatively niche pursuit. But this hobby will attract over 10,000 people to the halls of Alexandra Palace this month, insists the organiser of the UK’s foremost festival dedicated to the activity.

“Saturday is usually the busier of the two [days] with many modellers keen to sniff out a bargain” Kathy McKenna says. “Sunday is more relaxed and definitely attracts more families.”

And – perhaps even more surprising to those of us who know little about it – this is certainly not a new tradition. Festivals celebrating railway modelling go back over 100 years.

“The history of a major model railway exhibition in London each spring goes back to 1912 – when The Model Railway Club hosted its first public event,” explains Kathy. “This annual exhibition grew over the decades and at one time ran for a week over Easter at Wembley. The current show is a reboot of those events, and has been run by British Railway Modelling Magazine along with The Model Railway club since 1999.”

This version of the festival has been held at Haringey’s Alexandra Palace since the turn of the century. So, what is railway modelling? Simply put, it’s the recreation of a fully functioning train line but on a much smaller scale – and it’s been going on since the 1840s for almost as long as rail transport itself has been in existence. It can also get quite complicated: it involves scales and gauges to ensure each part is the proportional size, with said parts including couplers and connectors, landscapes, ‘weathering’ (to make the model look as if it’s been exposed to the elements) and, of course, power to make the trains actually move.

The London Festival of Railway Modelling gives railway modellers a chance to find the best equipment, as well as meet other enthusiasts. “Exhibitions were originally founded as a way to show the wider public the skill and art of railway modelling – and also provide funds to pay for club facilities,” Kathy says. “That is very much the approach today – giving a chance for modellers to come together to celebrate each other’s work, and an opportunity to buy models and materials from a much wider range of suppliers than can be found locally.

“It’s a way to celebrate the breadth of the hobby – whether beginners or experts, or even those with a passing interest. The Model Railway Club selects around 40 of the best model railway layouts in the UK – in a variety of scales, historical periods and regions – into one place, alongside a whole range of specialist modelling societies and demonstrations.”

The team behind the festival are responsible for carefully perusing the most up-to-date railway models and selecting the very best for exhibition. “The Model Railway Club uses its contacts around the UK, and goes out and visits layouts to check they not only look good but work well,” says Kathy. “Their team then choose a good range to give as good a variety as they can each year – with every year different and only a few layouts coming more than once.”

The vast halls of Alexandra Palace provide the ideal location to showcase these exhibitors. “It’s the perfect size for this show – and it’s a beautiful building filled with its own history including an abandoned railway station just behind it,” says Kathy. How common really is railway modelling as a hobby, I ask Kathy? “It’s a huge hobby with literally hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts in the UK,” she insists. “There are some celebrity railway modellers too, such as Rod Stewart, Jools Holland and Pete Waterman. The hobby means different things to different people. For some it’s recreating a slice of their youth, for others it’s the social side of building and operating a layout with friends while others love the activity of creating a truly stunning model railway layout.

“For years people have been saying that it’s a dying hobby yet our exhibition attendances show no sign of dropping. There are loads of youths coming into the hobby too so the interest is well and truly there.”

Her advice to newcomers is, first of all, “start small and simple”. “Most people enter the hobby with a Hornby or Bachmann train set in OO gauge,” Kathy continues. “You can do so much too… model buildings, add scenery, weather your locomotives. It doesn’t cost a fortune to get started either. You should also look for a local club or exhibition and get involved and buy a magazine or two. BRM (British Railway Modelling) is definitely recommended! You’ll learn loads of skills and get to know a great community of like-minded enthusiasts. Check out the internet too. World-of-railways.co.uk is a great source of news and articles whilst rmweb.co.uk is a forum covering literally everything you could possibly need to know!”

This year’s festival takes place from 16th March.


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