Photo: Christopher Kemp

It all started 45 years ago, when Drummond Randall took his
three-and-a-half-year-old son for a day out on the Romney, Hythe and
Dymchurch Railway, on the South coast.

“I remember very clearly what happened when we got home,” recalls
Drummond. “My son turned to me and said, ‘Dad, are you going to build
me a locomotive?'” The answer was yes. And while most fathers might
have made do with buying their son a little electric train set and putting
it in the loft, Drummond went one further and constructed an entire, working
miniature railway, around the garden of the family home in Kent.

There’s a little station at which passengers can get on, an engine shed where
the trains sleep overnight, and, rather than just chuffing around in a
boring circle, the locomotives wind their way through holes in hedges, into
long, dark tunnels, around the edges of attractive flower beds and across
dramatic bridges that span ponds.

Plus, on each circuit of the garden, the train passes just a couple of feet in
front of the spectacular half-timbered, 17th-century home in which the
Randalls live. Step out with a cup of tea, and if you didn’t look where you
were going you could find yourself being struck at kneecap level (it’s a
miniature railway, remember) by one of Drummond’s immaculately polished
trains. Maybe the gleamingly caramel-coloured locomotive Crowborough, or
perhaps its elegant, powder-blue cousin Dunalistair. Or conceivably Toby the
shunting diesel, powered by silent electricity, rather than roaring coal
fires and wheezing steam.

In all there are seven trains running on Drummond’s network, which he still
lovingly maintains, although his son left home some time ago. So is he
fulfilling one of his own boyhood fantasies? “No question about it,”
he says with a laugh. “When I was a teenager, I built my own small
version of this railway in my back garden. But my mother wasn’t very keen on
it, and when I got called up to do National Service, she pulled all the
track up.”

It’s a familiar story. Most people live in fear of a high-speed, real-life
rail line bisecting their back garden, but a growing number of home owners
view a miniature railway running through their rose beds as the fulfilment
of a childhood dream.

“When I was a small boy in the early Fifties we had a little steam train
running in the garden,” says David Black, who now repairs and runs
miniature locomotives at his home in North Wales. “It was just a little
circuit set up by my father, and I kept it going when he died.”

It was this same love of small locomotives that ran through the early life of
Robin Palmer, who has been running a 3,600ft (1,100m) miniature railway in
his garden near Saffron Walden, Essex, for the past 30 years.

“Even as a boy I would take my clockwork Hornby train and track on beach
holidays, and run it around and through the middle of my sandcastles,”
he recalls. “It’s something you never grow out of.” That said,
there’s a lot more to running a rail network, even a reduced-size rail
network, than just putting on a top hat and pretending you’re the Fat
Controller. There’s the track-laying, for a start.

“Early on, I found that if you just lay the rails on the ground, you’re
going to give yourself a bumpy ride, to say the least,” says Drummond. “It
can take a good two years, before the soil settles.

“In the end, we laid our track on a concrete base, and used aluminium
rails, rather than steel, which gives you a much smoother, silkier ride.
Steel rails can pit and rust, but with aluminium you get more of a gliding
effect; it’s like being aboard a magic carpet.”

Gradients can be a problem, too; trains don’t much like going up or down
hills, as Robin Palmer discovered.

“The steepest incline I’ve got is a section which is 1 in 33,” he
says. “And that’s pretty close to the steepest gradient I’ve come
across in a real-life railway, which is 1 in 35, on a stretch of track just
outside Ilfracombe. By and large, I stick to something pretty flat, around 1
in 75.”

Guests enjoy a ride at Fawley Hill

One thing you learn early, of course, is that while the appeal of miniature
railways is largely aesthetic (sights, smells, sounds and so on), the
running of said network is all to do with engineering and science. And
numbers.

A key statistic is the width of your rails. This can be as narrow as half an
inch (16mm) and as wide as 15in (380mm). And there’s no room for error. When
one local authority on the East coast built track measuring 14in instead of
15, it had to pull it all up and sell it off, because no train could run on
it.

Meanwhile, another council in Derbyshire decided to discontinue its
one-and-a-quarter-mile (2,000m) miniature railway because the track was too
tempting a target for vandals, who would occasionally attempt to re-enact
derailments. This is one reason these reduced-size railways tend to be
tucked away in private gardens, or, at least, in easily guarded garden
centres.

As for making money out of miniature trains, you can pretty much forget it.
Most of these lines are financed by personal savings, which are stretched
further thanks to liberal lubrication of love and voluntary effort.

“In the early Seventies, there were about eight or 10 of us, working
unpaid on the railway at weekends,” recalls Drummond Randall, who only
opens up his network three times a year.

“You definitely don’t go into this for the money; you do it because it’s
a social thing, a bit like owning a dog, and mixing and swapping notes with
other dog owners. Sometimes you’ll go and visit their railways, too, or they
will come and visit yours.

“And you get to do the classic things, like cooking bacon and egg on your
shovel, which you hold over the burning coals inside the steam train’s
engine. Just like a real train driver!”

It also helped that, for many years before he retired, Drummond ran his own
sheet metalworking business, and in slack moments could get his staff to
produce a few extra lengths of track. He also took night classes in welding.

As for those railway owners who don’t have the engineering skills to do their
own repairs, they make tracks to David Black, who, before setting up his
business, spent most of his working life on miniature, or narrow-gauge
railways in North Wales (the Fairbourne, the Bala Lake, the Ffestiniog).

“There are more private owners than ever before who don’t have either the
time or the knowledge to put their locomotives right,” he says. “Instead,
they drive them on trailers up to me. I’m booked up for months ahead.”

It didn’t always used to be that way, says Robin Palmer, who, like a lot of
owners, was inspired by looking out of the window at school, as trains such
as the Mallard and the Flying Scotsman pulled out of London’s Kings Cross.

“When I first started my railway, it was quite common for people to spend
20 years or more building their engines,” he says. “It was labour
of love. The first locomotive I bought was a project on which someone had
worked for years; he died before he could complete it.

“I bought up the full-sized Saffron Walden station waiting room, when Dr
Beeching closed the line down. First, I dismantled it, then it sat on 24
pallets for 10 years, waiting for me to get around to reconstructing it.”

Unlike real-life rail franchisees, however, there are no shareholders or
regulators applying financial pressure. The worst flak they are subjected to
is the occasional shower of burning-hot cinders.

“That can be a problem, if you’re having a garden party and offering your
guests rides on the train,” warns Robin. “On one occasion, my
sister turned up wearing a white dress, and she ended up with little black
marks and scorch holes all over it.

“It’s not a precise science, running a miniature railway, but it’s a
wonderful thing to have in your back garden. And the best thing is, there
are always small jobs that need doing, and improvements you can make.

“My big plan now, for example, is to run a branch line down to my compost
heap. I’ll get around to it one day, I know I will.” He then adds, more
in line with the big boys: “I’m just running a little behind time.”

The Heywood Society Members are all owners of garden railways, many of
them spectacular, many of them open to the public (theheywoodsociety.co.uk).

Ten and a Quarter Inch Railway Society For everyone who owns, or wants
to own, a miniature railway with a track width of 10¼in. Trains will easily
be big enough for grown-ups to ride on (tenquarter.org).

Seven and a Quarter Inch Railway Society The same as above, only for
owners of slightly narrower-gauge railways. Still big enough to sit on (sevenandaquarter.org).

G-Scale Society All members own garden railways with track widths of
45mm (g-scale-society.co.uk).

Association of 16mm Narrow Gauge Modellers Outdoor railways don’t get
much smaller than this (16mm.org.uk).

Wimbish Light Railway, North Essex Owned by Robin Palmer, open by
private invitation only (wimbish-railway.co.uk).

David Black Repairs and runs trains on his garden railway near
Dolgellau, North Wales
(arthogsteam.co.uk).

Garden Railway Club Tips, hints, message boards, how-I-did-it stories,
plus a guide to starting up (gardenrailwayclub.com).

Garden Railways magazine The bible for those who have trains running
alongside trellis (grwtrains.com).

Model Engineer magazine Lots of ads for narrow-gauge trains and
miniature railway equipment (model-engineer.co.uk).

Melanie Hancill

Journalist at Mirror
Sugar-free, home & garden writer for the Mirror and Sunday People news outlets.