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Minia­ture worlds have cap­ti­vated gar­den guests and the pay­ing pub­lic since the early 20th cen­tury.

Minia­ture worlds have cap­ti­vated gar­den guests and the pay­ing pub­lic since the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury. To­day we still de­light in their minia­ture mar­vels; Robin Glover dis­cov­ers more about their past, and ro­man­tic ap­peal, nearly a cen­tury on!

WHEN THE WEALTHY ac­coun­tant, Roland Calling­ham, in­dulged his nos­tal­gic whim for cre­at­ing, in minia­ture, an ide­alised vi­sion of what an English coun­try vil­lage might have looked like in the early 20th cen­tury, he lit­tle re­alised that he was fol­low­ing a so­cial fash­ion which first saw light 1400 years be­fore, in Ja­pan, in the gar­den of the Em­press Suiko. He lived in ru­ral Bea­cons­field, just an hour north­west of Lon­don, and he cre­ated, along with his close col­lab­o­ra­tor, James Shilcock, the finest and most en­dur­ing ex­am­ple of the model vil­lage, Bekon­scot. Re­cently pub­lished by Am­ber­ley Books (am­ber­ley­, in their ex­cel­lent ‘Bri­tain’s Her­itage’ se­ries of fact-filled guides to lit­tle-known facets of UK life, is a vol­ume en­ti­tled ‘Model Vil­lages’, com­piled and writ­ten by Tim Dunn. To com­pose this piece, we have taken many of his facts, and just a lit­tle of his en­thu­si­asm, and hope you will en­joy the jour­ney. Although hob­by­ists, gar­den­ers and Asia en­thu­si­asts had been ac­tive in Ge­or­gian and early Vic­to­rian times, mostly build­ing grot­toes and rock gar­dens, the key de­vel­op­ment was the later in­ven­tion of the rail­ways, bring­ing trans­porta­tion and tourism to all classes of so­ci­ety. Fol­low­ing close be­hind the full-size steam en­gines and car­riages was the emer­gence of scale-model ver­sions, en­gi­neered in those pre­mass pro­duc­tion days by Bas­sett-lowke Ltd and de­signed to en­ter­tain the en­thralled Vic­to­ri­ans and their fam­i­lies. Not all houses were large enough to ac­com­mo­date the ever grander, and more ex­trav­a­gant, track lay­outs so the own­ers of many of them were obliged to move to the gar­den, where op­er­a­tors were in­spired to build tun­nels and cut­tings to sim­u­late re­al­ity. The next log­i­cal step was to set the lay­out in or around a town or vil­lage and ‘model vil­lages’ be­came the fash­ion, the first on record be­ing that of Charles Wade, in 1908, at his home in Hamp­stead, North Lon­don. When he moved house to Snow­shill Manor, in Glouces­ter­shire, the vil­lage was moved with him, but re­ar­ranged around a fish-pond as a Cor­nish fish­ing-vil­lage. It sur­vived into the 1920’s, be­ing dis­man­tled and brought in­side over the win­ter months, and, fol­low­ing Charles Wade’s death and the trans­fer of the prop­erty to the care of the Na­tional Trust, is still there to be found dis­played, in­doors, along with his other col­lec­tions. Soon after­wards, Roland Calling­ham started work on em­bel­lish­ing his gar­den at Bea­cons­field, for the pri­vate entertainment of fam­ily and friends, de­sign­ing and build­ing an in­creas­ingly elab­o­rate scheme, in­clud­ing a Lon­don-style rail­way ter­mi­nus, a min­ster church (com­plete with stained-glass win­dows and elec­tric lights) and a me­dieval cas­tle. Fi­nally, in 1931,

he con­sid­ered the vil­lage was com­plete and the doors opened to the pub­lic, in re­turn for char­i­ta­ble do­na­tions to­ward the up­keep costs. Un­ex­pect­edly, the pri­vate whim be­came a huge com­mer­cial suc­cess, pos­si­bly as an an­ti­dote for the un­rest and de­press­ing news dom­i­nat­ing Europe at the time, and im­i­ta­tion – ‘the sin­cer­est form of flat­tery’ – fol­lowed, bizarrely in a Cotswold pub gar­den, mid­way be­tween Snow­shill and Bekon­scot. A land­lord, keen to gen­er­ate busi­ness and to dif­fer­en­ti­ate his of­fer from those of his com­peti­tors, com­mis­sioned ‘a minia­ture moun­tain glen with hills and river and wa­ter­falls’ adding scale copies of the bridges and vil­lage hall from Bour­ton-on-the-Wa­ter. Fired by the suc­cess of his ven­ture, he cleared ad­join­ing land and com­mis­sioned, in 1936, a 1:9 scale copy of the en­tire cen­tre of the vil­lage, using the fa­mil­iar lo­cal ma­te­ri­als, and it has sur­vived the pass­ing decades, even be­ing ‘listed’ as a na­tional mon­u­ment in 2013. Cur­rently un­der restora­tion by Ju­lian and Vicki, the lat­est land­lords, it is to be dis­cov­ered at the Old New Inn (true!) at Bour­ton. It has proved to have some per­ma­nence when many have risen and sadly fallen, by the way­side. In the post-war years, when con­flict was over and aus­ter­ity eased, model vil­lages pro­lif­er­ated but most lacked the longevity to match the optimism of their creators. The boom years for the tra­di­tional ‘bucket and spade’ hol­i­days brought Lil­liputian vil­lages to all the fa­mil­iar sea­side towns, from Can­vey Is­land to Il­fra­combe and East­bourne to Black­pool, and the fa­mil­iar story of chang­ing fash­ion in leisure pur­suits spelt the end – at least for some. The great sur­vivors are dot­ted around Bri­tain and still give old and young a thrill, whether of nos­tal­gia or of the ex­pe­ri­ence of walk­ing through a town and look­ing down at the rooftops. Not quite the old­est in the world, but cer­tainly the most fa­mous, Bekon­scot con­tin­ues to de­light; no less than two vil­lages can be found in the pic­turesque God­shill, on the Isle of Wight; even Lon­don has its own, at Brock­well Park. A gen­tle-paced, but thor­oughly Bri­tish, ex­pe­ri­ence awaits your visit. As well as those al­ready men­tioned, from South­sea, near the great his­toric naval city of Portsmouth, home of HMS Vic­tory and Henry VIII’S 16th cen­tury flag­ship Mary Rose, to the Lake District, home of Beatrix Pot­ter, and from Ryedale, in beau­ti­ful York­shire, to East Anglia’s Great Yar­mouth, there are quiet plea­sures wait­ing to be ex­plored and rel­ished.

Model Vil­lage of Han­ton Fish­ing Vil­lage, Bekon­scot in Buck­ing­hamshire

Model Town at Wim­borne in Dorset

Model Vil­lage of God­shill in God­shill, Isle Of Wight

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