Wrack and Ruin

A mid-life crisis in narrow gauge

A Question of Character

Nantlle is the featured line in this month’s Garden Rail magazine (which incidentally I was impressed to see is now available again in WH Smiths for the first time in years, hopefully a sign of rude health following the new ownership). It’s a really lovely line, based on modern FR/WHR practice and set amongst some beautiful scenic work. Really quite… disheartening inspiring.

There are a lot photos of similarly inspiring examples and models online, which generally I enjoy poring over. Take, for example, the shots posted to HGLW’s Facebook page; it’s almost enough to make you reconsider whether you need live steam at all when for the same cost you could build a small industrial-themed line dripping in atmosphere and an entire fleet of these appealingly bijou wooden-bodied diesel shunters.

Unfortunately, when this leads to you comparing what others have built with your own meagre efforts, it can all become rather dispiriting. Some of the folk who’ve read this blog and looked at the photos of the R&R on Flickr have been very kind (a general and refreshing trait in the 16mm world, I find), but yesterday I fell to pondering what it was about my modest line that generated a continual nagging dissatisfaction which, truth be told, was probably in part responsible for my leave of absence over the last few years. And after reflection, thinking back to the other lines I’ve liked, I suspect it comes down to character - the lack of it.

Character is that elusive quality that turns a modest amount of plastic and nickel track and a bit of gravel snaking incongruously along your borders into something mysterious and evocative. The best 16mm lines absolutely bask in it, rendering even the lowliest effort into something that feels like it could potentially constitute a ‘real’ railway. Unfortunately for lazy bodgers like me, none of the retailers I’ve come across are selling cheap bags of character that you can just pour out, so it looks like it’s something one must build laboriously for oneself. (”…As in life” - shut up, Master Shifu.)

It doesn’t help that I have a basic circuit of track on one level, bounded on three (straight) sides by a path and some flower beds which prohibit much in the way of expansion or scenic dressing. The fourth side cuts across the lawn, the top third of which is enclosed by the line, and I’m loathe to let it intrude any further there (if nothing else, in a family garden it just means more stuff to get stepped on, tripped over or treated as a linear litter tray by your overly numerous cats). From the right vantage point, you can view the entirety of it, which means there isn’t much left to discover and nothing is withheld from gaze. I’m not going to extend the trackwork; while my N gauge philosophy was always “MOAR POINTS!!!”, I think that would be foolish on a ground level, manually operated line. Operationally, it makes no sense and I don’t regret the lack of sidings (although an argument could be made for the scenic possibilities) or hanker for more track. So I’m stuck with what I’ve got.

Worse, before embarking on this madness, I’d done plenty of research about what I wanted, what appealed to me, the atmosphere that drew me to particular lines… and then somehow neglected to apply or even consider any of it. It had all turned out as I’d hoped, but not as I’d planned - because planning hadn’t come into it. There are bits of the resulting line that I like - where it meanders through the moss under the bridge, for example - but the overall effect is of plainness.

This was starting to sound like a string of poor excuses rapidly degenerating into a pointlessly self-critical why-am-I-so-crap-at-this lament, but then …

An awesome idea. (Well OK, a slightly unoriginal and modestly conceived one, but let’s wallow in the road-to-damascus vibe for a moment.)

IMG_20170615_215233.jpg IMG_20170615_215245.jpg

…Yeah, it doesn’t look like much, I admit. Penwork isn’t my greatest skill; maybe go look at my Pinterest board instead. What these sketches show is the slate rockery I’m going to build inside the top right corner of the line, opposite the existing ‘cutting’ (that was). I’m going to chop out that bit of lawn, which has never thrived owing to the shade from the nearby tree and boundary wall, and replace it with an area of loose slate rocks and chippings whose outlines will be softened by some judicious planting with dwarf shrubs that can withstand damp, shady conditions. The rear of this rockery will rise up (to a limited degree - no higher than the existing flower bed) against the line, thus restoring some necessary seclusion to that section.

Quite pleased with this one; I like rockeries anyway, as they keep the weeds down and there’s less to grow and therefore wither and die (the north side of our garden being pretty much a death sentence to most plants). And I always wanted a Welsh slate line feel, despite the near absence of actual slate at present - much more like Nantlle (although I wouldn’t hope to aspire to that level). More critically, hiding part of the line behind the rockery will break up its appearance and open up the possibility of representing something more … characterful.

Even better, within an hour of dreaming up this whizz-bang idea, I managed to track down a supplier online where I could easily buy the raw materials I’d need to realise this holy vision - typically the sticking point upon which most of my bright ideas founder. Take a look at this. They even do cut slate walling blocks; I could build that clawdd I planned originally. Given enough stone, I could replace the riverbed look of the revamped cutting with a proper slate quarry feel!

True enough, while I think the prices for delivery of what is a large amount of extremely heavy rock are very reasonable, this is a project that may have to wait a year (mainly in view of an upcoming expensive holiday commitment). One full cage of slate alone will almost double the value of the lineworks to date. But I’m suddenly feeling excited again by the possibilities, and by having some direction to this project at last.