The more the merrier
John Wilkes let his imagination run wild with his industrial re-working of a forgotten tramway where the rule ‘less is more’ does not apply.
John Wilkes’ imagination ran wild with his re-working of a forgotten tramway.
Quirky US locomotives, bright pink wagons and an exploded gunpowder van. Not the sort of thing you’d expect to see in a quiet Gloucestershire town, but this is exactly what John Wilkes has featured on ‘Coleford’, and he’s let his creativity flow. “Contrary to the usual reasons for building a layout, I never had any interest in the area. I just happened to drive past it regularly and thought, ‘I’ll model that.’ I worked in Gloucester for six months and passed Coleford often. After a small amount of research, the decision to build a declining 1960s-era narrow gauge layout based on the old tramway that ran from Coleford to Monmouth was formed. I’d been quite comfortable sitting in my armchair for many years, imagining layouts that I fancied modelling, but figured that if I didn’t start building a layout soon I never would.” ‘Coleford’ was originally half the size it is now, as in 2010 John had only built the industrial section. It was a good start but things quickly became very frustrating. “I was just getting annoyed by the fact there wasn’t any sort of ‘run’. Locomotives would come straight out of the fiddleyard into the industrial section. I made the decision to add the scenic section to the right of the industrial portion, and to flip the fiddleyard by 180º so that it enters the layout from the opposite side. The new cassette fiddleyard receives a lot of interest at shows – so much so that I had to remove one section of the backscene to let people see what I was doing.”
Considering it was his first layout, John didn’t make life easy for himself, electing to use two different types of Peco track and then modifying them. One type is ‘N’ gauge with the majority of the centre sleepers cut away – to represent track on longitudinal sleepers – while the other is ‘OO9’ track with all of the centre sections removed – to represent rail on stone chairs. “It took a while to lay the track, but once the first rail was in place it was easy to keep the second line in the right place using a track gauge. On ‘Coleford’ the extension is Code 55, but the building section is Code 80. I kept the wiring simple, using analogue
control, so there are only four feeds altogether and I use dead frog points. This, as it turned out, wasn’t the best of ideas, especially as the points were bought cheaply second-hand and they really aren’t the best. They need regular maintenance to keep things running smoothly, especially with some of the short wheelbases you get on ‘009’ models.” You may not hear the phrase ‘I never had any interest in the area’ in railway modelling circles, but one phrase that you certainly will hear is ‘less is more’. It’s safe to say John doesn’t abide by this philosophy. “For me more is more and less is just… less. It’s really a question of balance. I wanted to give ‘Coleford’ something a little bit different and, more crucially, make it interesting to operate. Industrial narrow gauge railways were often crammed into small spaces and that’s why I’ve put all the strange trackwork in. I like unusual trackwork.” The difference to the majority of layouts isn’t just with the track. John has also tried to make ‘Coleford’ stand out at exhibitions by depicting the layout in the cold winter months when the railway is neglected, as a contrast to the more typical bright blue skies on a glorious summer day. His search for appropriate vegetation and barren trees led him down the aisles of his local supermarket.
“The trees are a huge part of the layout and I had to make them look right. At first I considered using grape stalks, but these were too coarse. I went back to the supermarket, and on the way there I spotted a Japanese Cherry tree. I tried these but they still weren’t right. The answer finally came when I was on a walking holiday in Madeira and spotted some exotic heather. It was perfect as it was quite straight, but it had some small curves and I thought it would make pretty realistic poplar trees. When I was back in the UK I gathered some dead mountain heather on walks, and have used that. Ivy roots were also perfect as they had just the right amount of ‘wiggle’. The moral of the story is if you want ideas for your model railway, go for a walk! “Collecting enough leaves to cover the layout was very time-consuming. They are silver birch catkin seed separators. Gathering a load of them at once proved to be the answer, but separating them from the seeds can
take ages. My advice for anyone looking to use the same technique would be to collect them while they’re young and they haven’t had time to grow fully, as this will reduce the amount you have to discard.”
An increasingly common feature of exhibition layouts is giving the models back stories, and John’s story is quite explosive. “You’ll notice that one of the sidings has a gunpowder van next to a puddle. Continuing with my ‘more is more’ policy, I added that siding to fill the gap, but I didn’t want to connect it to the running line. I tell people there used to be two gunpowder vans there, but one hot summer day one caught fire and exploded, destroying the track and leaving a puddle in the crater. This being the Coleford Railway, it never got fixed. I installed a fake three-way point to further add to the illusion that it was once part of the setup.” John has used several unusual locomotives on ‘Coleford’, including one with a caravan and one with a sofa on the front of it! “The sofa locomotive was based on a picture of a US prototype that I found on the internet. It was used as an inspection locomotive on the New York Railway. The caravan locomotive is also a US creation and this was a self-build ‘critter’ that was largely unsuccessful. It needed replacement parts after every journey, and it only lasted for a year before being rebuilt!” The most interesting locomotive of all is the battery-powered ‘Plymouth’. This has a fuel tank underneath the chassis that powers the generator at the front of the locomotive. The electricity is stored in the batteries until the throttled electricity is delivered to the traction motors. “I do have some ‘sensible’ locomotives on the layout, principally the Peckett, which was built for me by Paul Windle, to whom I am very grateful.” There are so many great layouts on the scene at the moment and it is refreshing when something that breaks away from the norm comes to our attention. John’s layout is just that. From the quirky locomotives to the different season and track arrangement, to what would be considered ‘typical’, ‘Coleford’ stands out from the crowd. We look forward to seeing it at its next outing!
“I kept the wiring simple, using analogue control, so there were only three or four feeds altogether”