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'My love affair with railways began when I was in the pram'

Forget the nerd label, North Down Model Railway Society members tell Una Brankin why nothing beats the rail thing

What surprising obsession do these five Northern Ireland men share with Roger Daltry, Rod Stewart, Neil Young, Jools Holland and, er, Roy Cropper?

Coronation Street's awkward café owner Roy Cropper may be the ultimate, stereotypical train-spotter,  but you'd be surprised at some of his fellow enthusiasts from the celebrity world.

Rod Stewart, Jools Holland, Roger Daltry and Neil Young all love model railways, as did the late Johnny Cash. In fact, Rod Stewart, who keeps a large layout in his attic, confesses to feeling more excited by his appearance on the cover of Model Railroader magazine than Rolling Stone.

It seems there's something about model trains that brings the little boy out in some men - and the odd female is interested, too. Ahead of the North Down Model Railway Society's 25th Annual Model Exhibition in April, which will be treating visitors to their largest ever model-making showcase in Bangor, we met two long-serving members - who are nothing like nerdy Roy ...

North Down Model Railway member Denis Stewart (52) is head of customer security services at British Telecom. The father-of-two lives in Bangor with his wife, Anne, and admits that girls are better at building models than boys. He says:

would I say Roy Cropper is typical of us? I don't watch Coronation Street - I would rather be in the club rooms. Perhaps we are eccentric, spending hours just getting something right, but hopefully we are not loners!

We have social links with clubs and societies across Ireland and further afield. Our members are made up of a good cross-section of the population - well, those that are males and mostly over 50, so I am sure we do have some parallels with Roy Cropper. Perhaps he would like to be a member ... ?

My father had a Hornby train set, a passenger train with an express engine and some coaches and a small goods train with some wagons. I started to play with them when I was about six or seven and it grew from that. We also built a layout in my bedroom in the roof space - more of a layout than a bedroom with the bed fitted around the layout.

I discovered the North Down Model Railway Society when I married Anne and moved to Bangor more than 20 years ago. What continues to fascinate me is the sheer range of skills you need to build a layout, the planning, woodwork for base boards, electrical wiring, laying track, building rolling stock, the scenery and the operation.

The hobby is a broad church and we have people who enjoy some aspects more than others. Personally I enjoy the physical construction and wiring. I would normally be the one under the layout at exhibitions with a soldering iron, fixing problems. Recently, I have started to build slightly larger models from brass kits, and in the club we are working on an O Gauge layout of Antrim.

We're an all-male club; however, when it comes to the exhibition I am supported by my daughters, sister and niece, who run the junior modellers' section.

We have found that the girls are better at making the models than the boys. There are a few lady enthusiasts out there, mostly supporting their partners with exhibition layouts.

I would normally spend about four hours per week building layouts. However, this would increase to 20 hours a week in the lead-up to a show. But most of this is planning and making the show happen, rather than modelling. I would like to spend more time on my own modelling; I have a number of kits to build.

Anne encourages me - she likes to see me making things. She does complain that I have turned her into a railway spotter, though, as she will point out features in the landscape from disused railway lines.

We can attract young people up to a certain age but yes, technology is a problem. Still, rather than fight it we can use it. We can introduce electronics to railways, controlling trains using smart phones and tablets.

I do know a guy that gives a demonstration of remote control - he has a camera strapped to the top of a train and can control both the layout and the train from his laptop or iPad from the internet. Mind you, he could not convince the cat to shift itself from the track - perhaps this is a later upgrade!

The biggest barrier to keeping children involved is the pressures they are under in school - once they hit P6 the 11-Plus preparation starts, and once they reach year nine, GCSEs start. Then higher education and/or girls take over as their main interest. We can only hope that they come along as adults to exhibitions and it sparks their interest again.

Personally, I have always enjoyed working with my hands. I have gradually moved roles and my current job allows me to wield a pen and push keys, so modelling allows me be constructive by building layouts. I have enjoyed showing others my skills and learning from them, but to me one of the best experiences is when you are at an exhibition and you see a child's eyes light up when watching, or even having a go, and you know that you have put a smile on their face.

Annual Model Exhibition organiser Derek Carter (68) is a retired bank official from Bangor. The father-of-one lost his wife of 36 years, Jane, in 2009. He says:

I was born and bred in Cookstown and my mother told me that she had to take me down to the railway station in the pram every day to see the steam trains, so that was the start of my love affair with railways.

We later moved to a house overlooking the Great Northern Railway, and that turned out to be my playground for the next four years, until the branch from Dungannon was closed in 1957.

During those years, I was very rarely away from the railway and got to know the drivers and firemen, and there was not a week that went by that I was not on the footplate, either going to the turntable to turn the engine for the return service to Dungannon, or shunting the NCC goods yard.

My mother always dreaded my return for lunch, especially on a Monday, as I went out wearing clean clothes and after a morning on the engine, you can imagine the state in which I returned home. On Saturday and holiday mornings, I used to 'help' the Hughes Bakery breadmen load up their vans, as bread was transported by rail from Belfast in insulated containers.

There was such a lovely smell of fresh bread when the containers were opened. The loaves, in many cases, were still warm and my pay for helping was a bun of my choice, so the more breadmen I helped out, the more buns I received.

My interest was reignited in the mid-Sixties when the family retired to Bangor and I travelled up and down each day on the train to work in Belfast, and then Ballymoney, where a colleague also had a passing interest in railways. That's when I started building models.

Believe it or not, building a layout requires a number of skills - design, carpentry, electronics and landscaping - and one of the secrets is taking your time. You can't rush the construction. If you are like me, with two left hands, you can always pick up skills which can be used around the house.

One of the advantages of belonging to the club is there is a member who can advise and guide in these skills.

In the autumn of 2013, I began building a layout with the help of my fellow club members, based on the NCC station and yard at Cookstown.

While it was still under construction, it had its debut last October at the exhibition hosted by the Model Railway Society of Ireland in Dublin, and was well received - which gave us great satisfaction.

We are currently an all-male club. The wife of one our members is a very good modeller in her own right and regularly helps her husband with his layout.

We know of a number of ladies who have constructed layouts from start to finish and have been exhibited at the leading Warley Show at the NEC Birmingham.

My son was interested as a child and in his early teens but then moved into war-gaming and now spends all his spare time on the computer.

Around 15 years ago, we had a number of young people as members but due to the pressure parents are putting on them to pass and get good grades in their exams, we now have none. However, at last year's exhibition we had a junior modellers' zone for the first time, where seven-year-olds and above were able to construct various kits.

Our club meets on Monday and Wednesday evenings and we exhibit at several shows a year. There's a camaraderie within the club. Many good friendships have also been formed with members of other clubs. A number of us have been attending the Warley Exhibition in Birmingham for many years and have built up friendships with exhibitors and traders alike.

I hope that young people get the modelling bug at our upcoming exhibitions and start building models of all types in their spare time. With this being our 25th show, we are giving all children attending a voucher for a free train ride at the Drumawhey Miniature Railway at Four Road Ends near Carrowdore, valid until Halloween.

  • North Down Model Railway Society's special 20th anniversary exhibition takes place on Saturday, April 11, and Sunday, April 12, at Bangor Grammar School, Co. Down. Follow the club on Facebook and see www.ndmrs.co.uk

Full steam ahead for family fun...

From miniature railways and steam engines, to mobile Meccano models and remote control airplanes, the North Down Model Railway Society’s 25th Annual Model Exhibition promises to bring together the very best displays from model-making enthusiasts across the UK and Ireland. 

 This year’s highlights at the two-day event will include a mini indoor air show featuring an array of remote control helicopters, drones and planes from the Bangor Electric Flying Club and the Belfast Model Flying Club.  Among the 65 exhibitors, there will be 17 fully functioning railway layouts, including the Awdry St Nicolas layout, named after, and inspired by, Rev Awdry’s Thomas the Tank engine stories.

This award-winning miniature railway is making the trip to Bangor from Warley Club in Birmingham and is one not to be missed for enthusiasts and Thomas fans.

As well as the traditional railway exhibits, the popular hobby of war-gaming will be included in the exhibition for the first time. Following the success of last year’s hands-on workshops for children, the 2015 show will boast a large junior modellers’ zone where children aged five and over can try making simple model kits, take part in a Scalextric car race, and have their turn at controlling a miniature railway.

As a special treat for families, and to mark 25 years of the annual exhibition, all children coming to the event will receive a voucher for a complimentary train ride at the Drumawhey Miniature Railway, just outside Bangor.

“The annual show is one of those unique events that appeals across the generations from nostalgic grandparents to young train-mad tots,” says event organiser Derek Carter.

“As organisers and enthusiasts ourselves, the North Down Model Railway Society are committed to providing a platform for model makers together and displaying their latest projects while at the same time inspiring the next generation to take up this creative and rewarding pastime.”

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