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


This is an edited version of the article which appeared in the January 2008 issue of Railway Modeller


             It’s funny how things get started. I realised recently that it was over twenty years since I began to get seriously interested in producing a model railway for exhibitions. Now, as I put this article together, my fourth exhibition layout is only two months away from it’s debut on the circuit. The model railway in this article, however, represents my first effort, all those years ago, to produce a layout that I would finally risk letting the public see – previous attempts at layouts had been static, ‘00’ gauge and built in the spare room and garden shed.  

          I have based this article on a piece I wrote in March 1987 for the free local village journal, so it may seem a little dated in places but it shows how I went about making ‘Penwick’. As the local journal didn’t have a section about railways, model or otherwise, I had to take this into account and so I began:

          What is it about railways that spark the imagination of so many people? The excitement of the journey? Memories of steam? Days collecting engine numbers? It’s different things to different people.

          One way people try to capture that feeling is by building a model of the real thing. I’ve been interested in railways since childhood, having read many railway modelling books and magazines and been amazed by the quality of some of the layouts, I decided to have a go at a proper exhibition one of my own.

          For Christmas 1985 a Graham Farish ‘N’ gauge boxed set was requested. It contained a Class 25 diesel engine, three carriages, some goods wagons, a loop of track and a power controller. This was a reasonable introduction to ‘N’ gauge, but after a while (a very short while) it got tedious watching the train chase itself round and round.

          Another look through the magazines confirmed that it didn’t have to be like this. I decided to build a fairly simple layout using plastic kits for buildings and other easily available items. A visit to a model railway exhibition in Nottingham, in March 1986, made me realise that even this plan left a lot to be desired. On the layouts there, such as the late Andy Calvert’s ‘Calverdale’, Barry Norman’s ‘Petherick’, Ian Futer’s ‘Lochend’ and others, the standard of scratch building was so incredibly high that it made some of the available plastic kit versions seem a little inferior.

          Thoughts began to turn towards building a small(ish) exhibition layout incorporating scratch built buildings and scenery, but utilising the better quality kits and ready made items where necessary.

          Various plans were drawn up, based very loosely on Narborough, but the one I decided upon included some problems in terms of the electrics and track. The books I had were of little help so I turned to the manager at the now long defunct ‘Norcol Models’ in Leicester. He kindly gave me the benefit of his advice on where the connections would need to be and where isolating sections were required.

          The first things I actually made were two six foot by two foot tables to support the layout. I constructed them from chipboard and thick section softwood, which made them incredibly strong, but also incredibly heavy. (After Penwick was retired they didn’t get used for exhibitions again. They’re still in permanent use in the spare room today though, 22 years on!)

          Although the actual layout was to be eight feet long by one foot wide I had decided to use a circular loop at each end to allow trains that had been heading left across the layout to run round the loop and back onto the layout again, but going in the other direction (and vice-versa at the opposite end). This meant that, at each end, a two foot by two foot board was needed to allow for a minimum radius loop of track. Each loop had isolating sections to allow shorter trains to be held while others were in motion on the viewing area. The beauty of these loops was that, at times, long coal trains could be left running without them looking like they were chasing their tails! (Some members of the public were confused by how such long trains were accommodated in only two foot long fiddleyard ends.) [I later discovered that this type of track formation was known as a “dog-bone”].

          So, with the basics sorted out, the next step was to build the baseboards. These were fairly straightforward being constructed from ˝ inch chipboard and two by one softwood, all glued and screwed together. (These, like the tables, ended up being quite heavy). Once they were complete the track had to be laid in place. Peco electrofrog points and streamline track were used. The points were positioned and fixed first, and then the flexible track was cut to length and held in place with track pins. All were then soldered to ensure good electrical connection.

          Two Gaugemaster controllers, purchased on the excellent advice of the manager at ‘Norcol Models’, were connected and the track tested. Fortunately everything worked as it should.

          All the trackwork had then to be made to look like the real thing by painting the sleepers a weathered wood colour and the sides of the rails rust, making sure that any paint which found its way onto the top of the rails was removed immediately. The ‘wire in tube’ system of operating the points was installed.  Ballasting came next, using small granite chippings brushed into place and then fixed with a 50:50 solution of PVA glue and water. (With a few drops of washing-up liquid included to break the surface tension). When the ballast had set, working ‘Ratio’ GWR signals were fitted. (If I had known at the time how fragile these signals tend to be I would have fitted them much later – so many breakages – so much swearing!).

          The station was the first building to be attempted on the layout. Accurate working drawings were made from which a plywood shell was constructed. Plastic window frames were glued over the designated spaces left in the plywood and the surface of the shell was skimmed with ‘Pollyfilla’. After it had dried, been smoothed off and any faults corrected, the stonework was scratched in and painted. Paper curtains were fixed inside the windows and work then began on the roof. This was made by cutting individual tiles from fine grade emery paper, gluing them onto card, and then fixing the assembled roof onto the top of the walls. Some of the tiles were cut smaller or at an angle and some were coloured lighter or darker to create a weathered appearance. Finally detailing like the canopy, chimney pots, doors, signs, downpipes and guttering were applied.

          Other buildings on the layout were built in a similar fashion except that strong card was substituted for the shell instead of plywood. During construction of the buildings it became necessary to allow things to dry or set so work began on the scenery.

          The hills were all made from polystyrene wall tiles built up in contour layers and glued together with PVA adhesive. The tunnel portals and scratch-built river bridge sides, once painted, were fitted into place. The hills were then covered with plaster, a process rather like cake decoration on a large scale. The result was allowed to dry, smoothed down, painted brown and small areas covered with slightly diluted PVA glue over which flock powders of various hues of green were sprinkled, through a tea strainer (well we needed a new one anyway… and still do!) Any excess was vacuumed off, an extremely depressing process as the more it was cleared the thinner the coating became, and so many layers had to be built up. To make it look more realistic the greenery had to be patchy, with darker areas in the valleys and sun bleached hilltops. ‘Coarse Turf’ (finely shredded foam rubber ) was sprinkled over the grass to represent rough areas of scrub and bracken – it got everywhere and it took ages to ‘defoliate’ sleeves and jumpers at the end of a sprinkling session.

          The trees for the layout were purchased from a place in London called the 'FACT TREE' which specialised in creating achitectural trees and plants of all sizes. Bushes and other greenery were made from lichen which was sprayed various shades of green.

          When the hills were being plastered; roadways, the river bed and pathways were moulded into it before it set. The river itself was produced by painting the bed a greeny – brown colour over which thin layers of gloss varnish were applied (to represent the water) leaving one coat to dry before adding the next. [Helpful hint – never do anything involving dust or scatter materials while the varnish is wet – furry water doesn’t look right!]

          The road and pavement surfaces were made by carefully cutting them out of fine emery paper so they fitted the shapes left in the plaster. This was then detailed with white and double yellow lines. Lawns, fences and hedges were now fixed in place.

          Small details such as cars, vans, people, phone boxes, level crossing gates, animals, sheds, washing lines, milk churns, oil drums, telegraph poles, etc. were obtained from a wide variety of sources. These all bring the layout to life; adding more human interest and something for non-railway buffs to look at.

          It felt amazing running the trains for the first time through a realistic(ish) model landscape; the layouts I’d built in the spare room and shed had mostly been all railway with a scattering of buildings made from cardboard kits. The engines for Penwick included a Class 25 diesel, a 37, a pair of 20s and a two car Class 101 DMU all from the Graham Farish range. Rolling stock consisted of a motley collection of various carriages, freight vans/wagons and a lot of merry-go-round coal hoppers. (I remember fitting the latter with loads made from foam rubber, cut to the right size to fit tightly, but with the tops ripped and picked off to look like heaps of coal which were then painted black. I vaguely recollect that I used enamel paint which caused the surface to react and look more like lumps of coal – a happy accident rather than by design!)

          With the actual layout nearing completion a nameboard, with display lighting, was constructed, plus boards to surround the fiddleyards. To make these boards more interesting at exhibitions I attached a collection of photographs of Narborough station which, as I said before, I had loosely based the layout on. I also took some photographs of the layout which I fixed onto two boards and these covered the spare space on the tables, in front of the layout. (The fiddleyards were arranged so that the track entered at the back, which gave the space at the front and also meant that little fingers were kept further away! - I don’t just mean the children’s!)

          At this point I well remember thinking “What do I do next? How does a layout get its first exhibition invitations?” Well, I sent out some letters and invited a few exhibition managers to come and see it. Luckily all of them decided it was suitable for their shows.

          ‘Penwick’s’ first exhibition was at the Leicester Model Railways Club’s show and I can remember the nerves. I was going to have to do it all on my own for the most part as Pennie, my partner, had a couple of months earlier given birth to our son Rory. She did come along on the Sunday, with him and her parents, but for the rest of the time I was flying solo.

          The layout and I had a lift to the show from a couple of members of the club, but I had to assemble it all on my own. I should point out here that neither Pennie nor I drive, so you may question the sanity of making a large(ish) exhibition layout!

          Apart from a couple a small teething problems, the layout’s first exhibition went very well, getting a positive response from the public and a few invites to more exhibitions.

          Returning from that show I made the decision that I could do with someone who could help me out with the transport and at exhibitions. Luckily I had a good friend, called Russell Bowley, at the school where I was teaching, who, when I was telling him about the exhibition, said he’d like to help out – and he did. He and his wife Gill became ‘the team’ for many exhibitions all over the country. Russell would hire a van on the Friday evening [his car was a ‘Citroen 2CV’ so ‘Penwick’ wouldn’t fit in it!] and we’d then go off to wherever the exhibition was. We had a great time, often laughing so much that it was hard to operate the layout!

          At one Derby exhibition in 1988 ‘Calverdale’ was also on display and so you can imagine my delight at being able to exhibit ‘Penwick’ at the same show as one of the layouts that had inspired me to get into model railways properly. (Andy won the best ‘N Gauge’ layout trophy and I got the award for best scenery – what a fantastic show that was!)

          I think ‘Penwick’ was on the exhibition circuit for about two years before Russell and Gill moved up north and ‘Penwick’ moved to its current location under our bed. I had already started to plan a new layout based on Abingdon station in Oxfordshire, but when Russell got his new job in Cumbria, I had to revise my plans and make it much more portable. The result was the ‘Abingdon’ which featured in the March 1996 edition of 'Railway Modeller' and travelled to exhibitions by public transport carried by Pennie, Rory and myself.

          Subsequently I went on to build ‘Littleton Curve’ (‘Railway Modeller’, May 1997) to show what could be achieved in a small space utilising easily available kits and bits and now I’ve got ‘Rorgyle’ being prepared for its first exhibition in May 2007. (This is the second version of ‘Rorgyle’, although the first only appeared at one exhibition – another story available in the May 2007 issue of ‘Railway Modeller’).

          Thanks go to all the usual people and if you haven’t yet started your first layout, whether it’s an exhibition one or not, have a go; it’s a great feeling to capture some of that railway atmosphere in model form.



You can find some photographs here or by left clicking on Penwick Photographs in the navigation bar on the right.

Penwick is now retired due to transportation problems and the fact that I'm fairly sure I'd never figure out how it works!