N Gauge Layouts - Rorgyle, Abingdon, Littleton Curve and Penwick


See the video of this layout here


(This is an abridged and updated version of the article which appeared in Railway Modeller)* 


Why Abingdon?          

            In a way Abingdon came about when I kept getting asked at exhibitions, where I had ‘Penwick’ on display, why I didn’t model an actual location. I must admit that up until then I’d always thought it was safer to model an imaginary place. The idea of modelling an actual place began to seem quite tempting; the only question was: where?

            Since childhood I have had a liking for the GWR so it had to be in their territory and as ‘Penwick’ had been a through station I decided to try a terminus. I could hear the cries already – “Oh no, not another GWR branch line terminus!”

            ‘Penwick’ had been mostly countryside so I decided to try a town location with some industrial buildings around. I spent quite a while looking through my existing collection of books and magazines but nothing seemed to fit the bill. Then, on a trip to Birmingham, I was in the Ian Allen Transport Bookshop and came across the perfect book – “The Abingdon Branch” by Nigel Trippett and Nicholas de Courtais.

            The layout of the station seemed ideal for modelling and the book contained track plans, building plans and loads of photographs. It was an ideal starting point for a layout.


A brief history of the prototype

            If all had gone according to the grandiose plans of Abingdon’s town fathers Abingdon may well have now been the County town of Berkshire with bustling station on a mainline. Now, alas, its former station is the site of a supermarket and retirement flats.

            In 1835 railway mania began when Brunel’s London to Bristol broad gauge line was being planned: various routes were suggested and the town fathers enthusiastically backed Abingdon’s bid to be ‘online’. Unfortunately objections from local landowners and commercial pressures conspired to require Brunel to find the most direct route from the Midlands through Oxford to London. Thus the line ran through Radley about 2 miles away leaving Abingdon as a railwayless backwater, eventually losing out to Reading as Berkshire’s County town (for those of you are confused Abingdon is now in Oxfordshire – but that’s another story!) and ensuring its steady decline in influence.

            The railway did, eventually, come to Abingdon in the form an uneasy alliance between the Abingdon Railway Company (ARC) and the GWR who were actually to work the line. The new line ran for one mile, seven furlongs off the Oxford line about ¾ of a mile south of Radley to Abingdon. The Inspector’s report stated that there be “only one engine in steam allowed on the line at one and the same time, and that engine be a tank engine”.

            The original working agreement called for six down trains and five up trains per day with two passenger trains each way on a Sunday. One train each day had to provide third class accommodation and there had to be one each way with proper connections to and from Paddington. The line soon proved to be modestly successful with steadily growing profits. It was converted to standard gauge in November 1872; this took only one day and was paid for by the GWR.

            The station building in those days was extremely basic and cramped and proved a major bone of contention between the two companies. Relations between the ARC and the GWR were always uneasy and eventually deteriorated to the extent that in 1904 the GWR “absorbed” the ARC. Certain promises concerning the levels of service and improvements in facilities were extracted from the GWR, but they did little to honour their word and the station building was left to fester.

            Matters took a sudden, dramatic turn in April 1908 with a train crash. An approaching goods train carried on without stopping and crashed into empty coaches forcing them up and through the station roof! Harry Geoff, duty signalman, was held to be responsible at the accident inquiry and was demoted to the goods yard. It was made known, unofficially, that this was the best thing that could have happened, especially as no one was injured. The damage was patched up and in 1909 an altogether bigger and better station was built, the one that appears on the layout.

            Abingdon was a busy bustling branch line serving numerous local businesses, coal yards and farms. As a result many mixed trains were run in the inter-war years. Originally the loads were hauled by 517 Class 0-4-2 tanks and 850 and 2021 Class saddle and pannier tanks. Later, following the withdrawal of 4 wheel coaches, the Collett 48xx 0-4-2 autotanks and trailers arrived and were usually run bunker first towards Abingdon. Though reckoned to be more modern in appearance, the drivers regarded them as poor steamers. The service was running at up to 18 passenger trains a day by the peak of the 1930s with an average journey time of 5 minutes for a single run, basically providing a shuttle to/from Radley.

            Abingdon was justly famous as the home of the MG and it was only really after the Second World War that car transportation by rail expanded; before then cars were driven out and the drivers returned by train. From 1949 the export drive to the USA started and car shipments peaked in 1975.

            The running down of the line started with the closure and demolition of the shed in 1953/4. Dr. Beeching then closed the line to passengers in 1963. However the branch survived, running coal and cars until 1984 when its 128 years of service finally ended.


In search of the real Abingdon station

            In 1989 we went to Abingdon to look at the old terminus. As it turned out very little remained; the trackbed, platforms and stables being the only survivors. It was a very melancholy experience picnicking on the platform edge imagining the trains coming and going. The area at the time was a rough carpark and the photographs of that day can be seen on as well as many other photos taken at different times during its history. Anyone who knows Abingdon will be aware that the site is now a supermarket and flats.



            Looking through the book about the Abingdon branch I began to realise how important the station building itself was going to be to the overall look of the layout. Using the plans and photographs from the book as a guide, I made the shell of the building out of plywood. The brickpaper used to cover the walls is the Builder Plus brickpaper that all 2mm modellers wished they’d bought in bulk – even today there is little on the market that matches the look of their sheets. Windows and doors were made from combinations of clear plastic (usually from Christmas cracker boxes), microstrip and card; all made to look as much like the originals as possible. The roof is thin card with slates made from 4mm strips of painted cartridge paper, cut halfway through with 3mm spaces to represent the slates when the strips are overlapped. Once the main fabric of the building was complete it was detailed with various signs, posters and other bits and this is when it came to life. With the station turning out better than I’d hoped I decided it was worth continuing with the layout.

            Next I built the baseboards which had to be lightweight but strong for ease of transportation. I worked out the most suitable sizes of boards that would sit comfortably on top of each other. With the scenic surfaces facing inwards; the scenic backboards make up the sides of a pretty strong box. When the boards faced each other I worked out that the only buildings that were going to be problem were the row of terraced houses which I made removable for transport. I used Sundeala for the surfaces with 2” by 1” softwood for the frames and plywood for the backscene boards.

            All trackwork is Peco Streamline (not the Finescale version as it wasn’t available when I started to build Abingdon) fixed down with EvoStick. For fixing the ballast I used the traditional method of PVA, water and washing up liquid. To colour the trackwork I used an airbrush over everything as the track often ends up pretty much the same colour as the ballast. This method tends to minimise the look of the rails, with some people at exhibitions thinking the trackwork was Finescale.

            The wiring, which is extremely simple, was completed next and everything tested. I used an ECM Compspeed Twin A for control which proved extremely reliable at slow speeds. Electrical connection between boards is achieved using DIN plugs. Like with the electrics I keep turnout operation as simple as possible using the wire-in-tube method with the end of the wire being bent upwards level with the backscene.


Scenery and Buildings

            Once the trackwork was completed work began on the scenery and buildings. All major buildings were constructed with plywood shells and smaller ones with mounting board card. Construction of most of the buildings and scenery followed techniques which have been described many times by experts in the modelling press so I don’t intend to go into too much detail here. I will, however, mention a couple of features which have been commented on at exhibitions.

            The stonework on buildings, like the engine and goods shed, is made from Polyfilla which was allowed to dry before being smoothed down with fine emery paper. The lines for the stones was marked on with a pencil and ruler, then the line between each stone was scratched in using a largish needle which had masking tape wrapped around it to make it comfier to hold. With careful painting this gives quite a good impression of stonework walls.

            The painted backscene is actually on 3mm MDF which, when finished, was glued to the plywood backscene boards. The first step with these was to paint the sky colour using little “match pots” of emulsion paint. I used a mix of light and mid blues, greys and whites. I tend to make the higher areas darker blue and those close to the bottom lighter to recreate the effect of the real sky which looks lighter nearer the horizon. The clouds are a mix of whites and greys; the top being made to look lighter, the underneath darker. The brewery buildings and gas holder were then drawn in the correct places. I used the buildings on the layout to get the correct scale. I decided to do them as if the viewer is looking straight on rather than trying to make them look three-dimensional because 3D views on layouts only work when seen from certain directions. The buildings and trees are all painted using watercolours which work really well over emulsion paint.

            The landscape is made up from Polyskim which was painted brown. To create the ground cover, several layers of flock powder, of various hues of green, were built up and all mixed and blended. On overgrown areas, course turf and foliage, of different colours was used. The flowers were produced by using small dabs of colour on the ground cover. Trees are from the Factree in London.


Locomotives and rolling stock

            I already had some GWR engines and wagons from the first version of Rorgyle (see the May 2007 issue of Railway Modeller for more details). These included a Graham Farish 94xx pannier tank and several coal wagons and single vent vans. The 94xx would never have visited the real Abingdon Branch because of the route restrictions, but it had to be on the layout because it was one of only three suitable ready-to-run GWR engines available back then.

            A major problem I had at the time was that the mainstay of passenger services on the branch was the 14xx autotank and autotrailer. The layout wouldn’t have been right without one so I was going to have to make it from a kit. The Langley brass and whitemetal kit was duly purchased and assembled. It looked fantastic and ran beautifully until its first exhibition when the motor, located in the autotrailer, burnt out. Unfortunately I had fixed the motor so well in place that I couldn’t have gotten it out without damaging the bodywork of the coach. Luckily I was able to get hold of the P&D Marsh whitemetal, plastic sided Autocoach which fitted over a Farish DMU chassis with the buffers removed.  This has proved to be a good runner and the original autocoach now sits on the tank siding, as one did on the prototype. I also managed to get hold of the correct number plates (1437) for one of the engines that actually worked the branch. (For Rorgyle I have got the new Dapol 14xx and autotrailer with the motor actually in the engine.) The Farish 57xx, which was new out, also appeared on the layout, but again wouldn’t have run on the real branch.

            The wagons and vans were a mixture of Peco and Farish ready-to-run items, all suitably weathered.


The end?

            The layout was not based in anyone particular time, trying more to evoke the atmosphere of a typical GWR terminus. Abingdon got to be displayed at a whole range of exhibitions but it was quite special when we got invited to do the Abingdon exhibition. The layout is now sort of semi retired but it has been provisionally been booked for one more exhibition in Abingdon in September – details to follow.


*If you have saved all your old copies of Railway Modeller you may be able to find the March issue of 1996 which featured the layout as Plan of the Month.

More details about the real Abingdon station can be found at which also includes some photographs of my model plus some of the research photographs I took back in 1989. It's a great site featuring excellent photographs and information from many contributors about a sadly missed GWR station.

Another excellent site on which photographs of my model of Abingdon station can be found is GWR Modelling. It's a fantastic site for finding detailed information about modelling anything to do with the GWR.