The Story So Far…….


Dave Roome, Alex Hall and Paul Spencer of Mickleover Model Railway Group describe how they designed and built the layout Farkham, based on British Rail around 1990.

Many of you may well have seen Farkham at various exhibitions across the country in the last few years, however, you may not be aware of how and why the layout was built in the style it is. Hopefully the following words and accompanying pictures give an insight into the thinking and ideas behind it.


In theory…

It is summer 1990, Paul Gascoigne is in tears and Chris Waddle’s penalty kick is still rising into a grandstand somewhere in Italy. The hopes of a nation are dashed once again as England are beaten by the old foe West Germany in the football World Cup semi-finals, but in the quiet midlands town of Farkham, life goes on as normal. Its small station is served by occasional passenger services with freight being the main traffic on this secondary line making it a popular destination for train spotters and railway enthusiasts. Beyond the station and town, the land opens out to reveal a small, but busy, freight yard which is served by local trip workings and occasional ‘Speedlink’ services. The main line gently curves away beyond this with a mixture of old and new buildings following its course.

How it started

In the mid-1990s, the three of us began thinking about, and planning, a new layout. From the outset, we decided it was going to be a fictitious location as we felt modelling an actual location would have restricted the choice of rolling stock on the layout too much. However, we did decide the layout would be set somewhere in the North West Midlands, as this covered most of the traffic flows we wanted to run. Due to space constraints in the clubrooms, the size of Farkham was limited to an area of 28’ x 6’. This meant a continuous run layout could not be built and, therefore, we needed to provide a fiddle yard at one or both ends of the layout. It was decided to have a fiddle yard at each end to allow through running, as this would fit better with the high proportion of freight traffic we wanted to operate. Allowing for the fiddle yards, we were then able to define the actual viewing area. The result was a layout with a viewing space of 16’ x 3’ and a fiddle yard at each end of 6’x3’. With the basic plan defined, we were able to focus on the layout design itself.After a couple of brainstorming sessions, involving beer and curry, a relatively simple but effective track plan was devised which combined a main line, through station and small yard. Our aim was to create a layout which allowed a wide variety of traffic to run along the main line, whilst retaining the viewer’s interest through shunting in the yard. This would maintain movement during the quieter periods on the main line.

The basics

Farkham uses traditional braced plywood baseboards of 6” depth for the layout with cut outs, to form the different levels, included during the construction. The layout is supported on pivoting 2” square softwood legs with adjustable feet which provide a track viewing height of around one metre above floor level. Laid on cork, the track is handbuilt to 16.5mm gauge, using individual component concrete sleepers, rail fixings and code 75 rail for the main line, along with points made from the same rail and copper coated paxolin sleepers. C&L code 75 flexitrack has been used in the yard along with hand built points made in the same way as on the main line. We decided to use this method for the track to give the correct sleeper spacings and improve its look. Interestingly, it does seem to make the track look closer to the correct gauge, even though it is still ‘OO’ gauge.

As mentioned earlier, space for the layout in the club rooms was at a premium and the original idea for the fiddle yards was to use a cassette system, something that has been used successfully on many exhibition layouts. During the building of the layout, we tried using 6’ long cassettes and, whilst they worked, the length was not very practical. After seeing a full cassette of stock drop on the floor, it was decided to alter the fiddle yards and provide traversers instead. These are approximately 6’ long with eight sidings on each. Some of the sidings are divided into two electrical sections and on these small cassettes, made from two or three Peco loco lifts, are used to enable multiple units or short trip working trains to be added into the sequence. The traverser decks are made from MDF with felt strips glued to the underside. Corresponding strips of Formica were glued to the top of the main fiddle yard baseboard, therefore, providing relatively friction free sliding of the deck across the board. Alignment of the tracks on the traverser to the main board is provided using the tried and tested method of a pin passing through two half hinges fixed adjacent to each track. Electrical contact is provided by switches rather than relying on the contact of these pins, as this provides a guaranteed electrical connection.

 After about three years of having the layout completed we decided to increase the fiddle yard capacity, not least to accommodate the ever expanding amount of rolling stock. An easy option for doing this was to add four sidings on an extra fiddle yard board that runs behind the main baseboards at the station end of the layout. These new sidings, which enable an extra three trains to be held, are accessed from the last line on the traverser deck of the fiddle yard at that end of the layout. The addition of these works well and it is actually possible to switch the trains over quickly and easily in a normal operating sequence.

In control

Farkham is operated using Gaugemaster analogue controllers. At the time of building the layout, DCC control was in its very early stages and not readily available. Therefore, the layout is wired with isolation switches and a significant amount of cab control.

There are three operating positions, one for the yard and one for each direction on the main line. The main line controllers are located in the fiddle yard at each end of the layout and the operators drive trains towards themselves during normal running. When required, the main line can be driven from just one end with the yard operator assisting by moving the traverser at the opposite end of the layout, as and when necessary.

Operation of the layout is complicated by the fact the main line goes into single track shortly after the station, at the canal end of the layout. This results in a level of coordination being required between the two main line operators which appears to work. Well it does 99% of the time! Whilst this might be seen as a hindrance to operation, it actually gives an excuse to hold trains on the layout and allow the one in the opposite direction to exit the single line section. Although the frequency of trains passing over this section is too high, it is a necessary compromise to keep the public entertained during the course of an exhibition. The single track section is interlocked with the switching of the main line point and, therefore, gives electrical control of the section to the driver of the train the route is set for. In theory, this is controlled by one of the three signals on the layout, two on the main line and one in the yard. In practice, the signals are only an aesthetic feature and do not prevent the driver from having a SPAD (Signal Passed At Danger) incident. They are Roger Murray signals and are controlled by the main line operators using a rotary switch to change the aspect.

On display

When presenting the layout at exhibitions, a lighting gantry is provided supported on cantilever posts fixed and braced to the rear of the layout. Within the gantry, three florescent light fittings are installed which provide a uniform light level across the entire layout. Rather than painting the fascia boards, which hide the lighting and fiddle yards, it was decided to cover them with cloth – a bright purple in colour! Whilst at first some were sceptical of this choice, it really does provide a contrast with the scenery on the layout and is something different from the black or blue cloths commonly seen on other layouts at exhibitions. The cloth is fixed to the fascias with strips of Velcro, enabling it to be easily placed and removed during the setting up and breaking down of the layout at an exhibition.

The urban jungle

Once the track was laid, wired and ballasted, we turned our attention to the layout’s scenery. Initially, we had envisaged a rural setting for Farkham, but as our thoughts developed, we began to contemplate more of an urban feel. Creating the scenery on a layout is very much like trying to paint a picture or draw a sketch, except the picture is in three dimensions. Our aim with Farkham was to provide a visually stimulating and atmospheric scene which holds the viewers attention even when the trains are not running. In order to achieve this, we had to look at both the overall picture and the finer detail. By looking at the layout composition as a whole, it was possible to place structures in positions where they provided both interest and balance to the scene. For example, the large blue warehouse located in the yard provides a central focus of attention, whilst the brick built warehouses at the canal end of the layout are balanced by the mirrored building and the station. The structures at the ends of the layout also provide an ideal way of hiding the scenic breaks to the fiddle yards.

One of the more unusual aspects of the layout is the number of structures and trees that are located at the front. By placing these items, such as the tower blocks, the cement works and large trees, at the front of the layout, we have effectively divided the view into three interconnected scenes, The building site, the freight yard and the town. As the trains pass through these scenes, the viewer will see the trains appear, disappear and then reappear in another scene. This helps to make the layout appear longer than it actually is and, due to the fiddle yard size constraints, hides the unrealistically short train lengths, as in most viewing locations, the train cannot be seen in its entirety. In addition, by creating these views, the observers’ field of vision is restricted and their attention is then drawn to smaller cameos set within each scene. All of these aspects, which we considered in the design of Farkham, have helped us create a composition where the railway passes through the scenery rather than dominating it.

In deciding to build an urban layout, it was clear that buildings would be the key to its success and on Farkham, we have used a variety of kit and scratch built structures. The station building is a Townstreet Models plaster kit, while the terraced houses are Metcalfe Models cardboard kits which have been subtly weathered and detailed with new chimney pots, gutters, copings and rainwater downpipes positioned to hide the joints between the kits. The mirror glazed office building is scratch built and was made by carefully scoring mirror plastic to create the glass panel effect. By increasing the pressure on some of the scored lines, the facetted effect of modern office glazing was achieved and this adds a different view to the scene.

The Universal Exports large blue warehouse in the centre of the layout was scratch built. It is a simple plastic shell which was overlaid with Evergreen corrugated styrene sheet to resemble modern warehouse cladding. Roof lights, louvres and doors were added before the corners, gables and eaves of the building were covered with either flat plastic strip or brass angle pieces as appropriate. What makes this structure even more striking is the degree of weathering that has been applied to it. After the base colour was painted, multiple layers of darker paint were applied, before rubbing back with cotton buds moistened with paint thinners to create a varied weathered pattern. Behind this structure is the chemical plant which is made from two Walthers Cornerstone kits. The main section is a grain storage facility, whilst the pipework on top and the fractionating column on the end are part of an oil refinery kit. Adding a few pipes onto the side of the grain silos helped to bind the two models together, creating one structure. Cornerstone kits were also used for the large fuel storage tank and part of the ready mix concrete batching plant, although the aggregate holding bins on the latter are scratch built from plastic.

At the canal end of the layout there are two former warehouses that have been converted into offices. These are based on bonded style warehouses, once common in lots of towns and railway yards, and are scratch built structures constructed from plasticard with the window frames printed onto acetate sheet placed into the openings. On the opposite side of the line to the warehouses is a building which spans the canal. Again this is scratch built, using Evergreen styrene ‘I’ and ‘H’ sections to reflect a steel framed building under construction. Central to the structure are the concrete lift shafts, one of which contains the tower crane being used to construct it. The crane is a Kibri kit and helps to bring the scene to life.

The railway is on a brick-built retaining wall that runs almost the whole length of the layout. This was constructed using multiple layers of embossed brick plastic card with tapered piers positioned along its length, in theory providing additional strength to the wall, but they actually help to hide construction joints and irregularities in the wall. The canal is made from a sheet of clear plastic, painted a suitable colour on its underside, prior to layers of Woodland Scenics Eazi-Water being applied on the surface, in a stippled pattern, to create the impression of surface movement.

Bringing it together

When all of the buildings were completed and placed on the layout, it was important they blended together. Therefore, once painted, each structure was weathered and toned-down to differing degrees reflecting a condition that was correct for its location, yet typical of buildings and structures seen 20 years ago. This has also been the case for road vehicles, people, grass, track and rolling stock.

Turning to items occurring more naturally, even though Farkham is in an urban setting, there are a large number of trees on the layout. These help to provide a splash of colour livening up the scene. They are made from Forest in a Box – Seamoss which was straightened and sprayed with brown paint, before being covered with Spray Mount adhesive and scenic scatter applied. Whilst the trees are not accurate depictions of real examples, they do provide a simple and effective representation. The remaining grassed areas were covered with scatter materials glued down in the tried and tested manner with diluted PVA glue.

With the basic scenery complete, attention could turn to detailing the layout. Road vehicles for the period we are portraying are not easy to source as manufacturers have tended to supply mostly either pre-1960s or current day examples. Using Taylor Precision Models, Corgi, EFE and Cararama for the bulk of the small vehicles, along with Knightwing for the lorries and forklifts trucks, we have managed to put enough vehicles on the layout without making it appear cluttered. People, animals and birds were added to the layout and while the local pigeon population does not appear to be as big as would be expected, they are not the easiest of things to paint! Details such as bicycles, shopping trolleys, wheelie bins and TV aerials were also added, together with telegraph poles and wires, the latter made from aircraft rigging wire which is sufficiently fine but elastic enough to be resilient to any knocks. The Universal Exports yard is surrounded by chain link fencing manufactured by Ratio, although 3’ lengths of steel wire have been used in the top of the posts to provide greater stiffness to the fences. The freight yard’s lighting tower masts are etched brass kits produced by Taylor Precision Models and provide very realistic models, although they are not illuminated.

A bit hirsute

The recent advances in static grass technology for scenic areas coincided with a need to give the layout a good clean after six years of completion. Therefore, we decided to have a go at making the layout look a bit ‘hairy’. After trying different colours and lengths of fibre and various application methods on a few test areas, plus a few electric shocks, the existing scenic scattered areas were covered with static grass. Light and dark shades of fibres, of differing lengths, were used to create the effect that can now be seen. Comparing the before and after, it certainly brings what were otherwise flat areas to life and gives another dimension to the model. We think it has been an exercise that was well worth the effort.

Rolling stock

As mentioned previously, due to the space limits for Farkham, the combined fiddle yards can only hold six foot long trains, together with a number of smaller cassette-based trains for multiple units and trip workings. In spite of this, it has been possible to gather a varied selection of traffic flows. The stock is generally based on the period shortly before the withdrawal of Speedlink services in July 1991 not just the summer of 1990. Therefore, the train formations and liveries cover the sectorisation period when postal, provincial, intercity and railfreight liveries were commonly seen running side by side, along with the occasional corporate blue examples. With the station served mainly by multiple units, the bulk of the stock on Farkham is made up of freight trains. Steel, coal, cement, speedlink and petroleum trains are run, all of which contain a mixture of scratch or kit built, and modified ready to run, wagons. Indeed, all of the stock on the layout has been modified to some extent and every item has been weathered to varying degrees.

Although it is not possible to detail every train in this article it is worth mentioning a few of them. Four Speedlink services are portrayed which are roughly described as being Scottish, Cornish, European and Midlands bound. They are recognisable by the variety of wagon types in each formation, as well as the commodities being carried. For example, grain, timber and china clay for the first two flows. The travelling post office train is striking in its Royal Mail red livery and consists of coaches made from DC Kits products. For variety of wagons, the scrap metal train takes a lot of beating with a mixture of two-axle and bogie examples. The container train is thankfully not fully laden, enabling the fully open frames of the excellent Colin Craig wagon kits to be seen. Perhaps one of highlights amongst the rolling stock is the breakdown train. With its scratchbuilt Cowans Sheldon 75 tonne breakdown crane and three support coaches constructed from Southern Pride kits, it is certainly out of the ordinary and always provokes interest at exhibitions. The short trip freight workings enable other unusual wagon types to be portrayed, including salt hoppers, bulk starch tanks, liquid chlorine tanks and an inspection saloon.

The stock is coupled using Smiths instanter type three link couplings and all the locomotives are fully detailed with buffer beams adorned with pipework and screw couplings. We are constantly looking to improve the quality and variety of the stock on display on Farkham and have many ideas for new trains for the layout. Unfortunately to accommodate them we will either need to build new larger fiddle yards or swap them for some of the current stock.

And finally…

Well there you have it, a description of the layout, the methods of construction and our ideas behind it which hopefully you will have found interesting. We have so far attended over 30 exhibitions with Farkham in locations all over the UK and in Holland and Germany!

Although many of you may have already seen the layout at an exhibition, If there is any aspect of the layout that we have not covered in this article, please feel free to ask us there!

8 thoughts on “The Story So Far…….

  1. Hi there. Just want to say after seeing your layout at York a few years ago it has remained my favourite and constantly inspires me.

    • Hi Jason

      thanks for your message, really appreciate the feedback.

      We are at the BRM doncaster show this weekend with plenty of new stock on show for the first time.

      I will be updating the blog next week with the details


  2. It was by far my favourite layout at Doncaster last weekend and I had a nice chat with one of the operators regarding how good the static grass looked. I have limited space at home so it was very inspirational. Well done.

    • Hi Tony

      Many thanks for your email about Farkham. we are really pleased you enjoyed seeing the layout. if you need any further info on anything and we can help by all means ask and we will try and provide any advice we can.

      Each of the three operators has or is building a small layout of their own and we understand the challenge of trying to create something in a limited space. Even at 28 feet long Farkham seems too small at times (except when we are carrying it to and from a van!!), especially our fiddle yards which are the biggest issue for us in terms of lack of storage space.

      Again, thanks for the comments

      Best regards, Alex, Paul and Dave

  3. saw yore layout at taunton Rail-Ex Yesterday (27/10/2013), in my opinion it was the best layout on show. from the trains on the main line, the shunting in the yard. to the fantastic surrounding buildings.

    Alistair Burgess

    • Hi Alistair

      thanks for your comments. Really glad you liked the layout. Its great to get feedback. Hopefully we will be down in the southwest again sometime in the future.

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