Why are models so fascinating? Psychologists haven’t spilled much ink over the question, but just about everyone visiting Bekonscot, the world’s oldest model village, is quickly spellbound.
The whole thing began by accident in the 1920s when Roland Callingham’s wife issued an ultimatum: either the model railway in the house goes, or I do. It appears that Callingham didn’t want to part with either, so he bought four acres of meadows next to his house in Buckinghamshire, England, near London, and proceeded to build an outdoor model railway, along with a model world to go with it.
With the help of model rail manufacturer Bassett-Lowke (still in existence), Callingham’s ad hoc team built a robust Gauge 1 line at 1/32 scale. Amazingly, one of the locomotives from 1929 is still running — still doing 2,000 (real, not model) miles a year.
The initial rail line skirted the new swimming pool that Callingham had dug for his tennis guests to cool off in. The earth from the pool excavation formed mounds on which the first model houses were built to complement the growing train line.
The houses were built to a different scale of 1 inch to 1 foot, now standard for many model villages.
Bekonscot opened to the public in 1929 and was an immediate success, even receiving several royal visits. It has expanded to fill nearly two acres with 400 yards of railways, six villages and seven stations, hundreds of buildings, and thousands of figurines — all made on-site by modelers and engineers, many of whom work there for decades.
Bekonscot is a charming snapshot of Britain in the 1930s, but it also encapsulates much of the history of industrial civilization. It has a coal mine, an oil refinery, an airport, a racecourse, a hospital, a farm, a funfair (carnival), churches, and schools, as well as lakes, a fishing harbor, and a yacht marina. It is a sensual and intellectual tour de force that’s attracted nearly 15 million visitors, given more than £5 million ($8 million) to charity (in today’s money), and been the inspiration for countless other model villages around the world.
Bekonscot Model Village: bekonscot.com
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