THE STORY OF BRITAIN’S MODEL VILLAGES
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 (amberleybooks.com), 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