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Full steam ahead… I like a challenge

When lockdown happened, train buff Ian Taylor’s thoughts turned to building a model railway in his back garden. £20,000 later, he is more invested than ever. He tells Andrew Gibbs why.

ENGINEERING has been in Ian Taylor’s blood for as long as he can remember. He graduated in the subject at the University of London, worked for London Transport designing Tube trains that are still in use today and was part of the development of the first driverless train tested on the London Underground network.

Ian Taylor.

It never went into service due to opposition from the then-powerful trades unions.  But his contribution to its development from vision to reality was one stop on the journey to running his own line.

His love of trains stems from his childhood growing up in the Kent seaside town of Margate. At the time it was served by trains bringing Londoners for a day out at the seaside. “The trains would arrive every five or ten minutes, loaded with passengers, and I just became fascinated,” Ian said.

When he worked in London, first with London Transport then later as a consultant putting bids together for multi-billion pound contracts for the project that would become known as Crossrail, Ian and his family lived in Surrey. It was natural that they paid regular visits to the picturesque Bluebell railway nearby, one of the first preserved heritage lines in the country with one of the finest collections of vintage steam locomotives and carriages running regular services along its 11 miles of track.

“So I got interested in steam trains, became a member of the Bluebell Railway Society and helped out with track work and vegetation clearance.”

At work he oversaw bids for a total ten contracts of which he won seven for his clients. “That was when I got heavily into how to build a railway.”

Ian relishes journeys into the history of the railways. We are chatting at the Forge Café in Culworth, a village seven miles north of Brackley and Banbury that was once home to two train stations on the Great Central main line between Nottingham and London, he tells me, until its closure amid a swathe of cuts by Dr Richard Beeching, chairman of the British Railways Board, in 1966.

It was natural therefore, having moved to Northamptonshire 24 years earlier and with time on his hands during the first pandemic lockdown, that his thoughts turned to building his own model railway in his garden.

Ian had been working as business development director for Scottish & Southern. Energy, one of the big six providers. He completed his contract in 2019 and decided to take a few weeks off before pursuing his next opportunity. Then the pandemic hit.

“It was going to wash through in three weeks or so. There was a nice sunny spell of weather and people said to me: ‘Why don’t you build a railway?’ We had a large garden, the size of two football pitches and created for two football-mad kids, floodlit on either side. All we had to do was go up and down with a mower. We thought ‘Why not?’”

Ian’s wife Sally began planning the garden’s landscaping. His focus was the railway.

Garden Railway Specialists in Princes Risborough is one of only a few retailers supplying clients with such a dream. The business was founded in 1982 by Michael Adamson and is now run by his son Matthew. Ian sought advice on the concrete base, how to overcome the two-metre slope in his garden in order to keep the track level – build a tunnel at the high point and a viaduct at the lowest – and allow for the track to expand and contract with the changing weather temperatures.

Construction started in November 2020. Within 12 months Ian’s back garden had experienced high temperatures of 40C and lows of -12C.

“I understood the challenge on paper but I did not really know it was going to be this complicated,” said Ian. “I found that out as I went along. I was visiting my chiropractor every month while I was building it.”

The 126-metre long line was completed the following summer. Sally operates the points and signals. “I am the train driver,” said Ian, who controls the trains from a central panel housed at the bottom of the garden.

The track is bedded in with Alpine grit for ballast. The rolling stock comprises four electric-powered engines including a special track-cleaning train, carriages and goods trucks. The freight trucks pull up to 15 beer wagons, each bedaubed with the branding of Ian’s favourite ales.

The line also has three model stations, named New Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch after towns on a line in Kent of which Ian holds fond childhood memories.

So far the project has cost around £20,000. “It moved on from a bit of track and a couple of trains. The shop owner keeps trying to tempt me to buy a steam locomotive but that is £49,000. When I retire, I might go for the steam engine as my retirement present to myself.”

The garden is landscaped around the track – a bridge enables them to move their mower to cut the grass within the line’s boundary – and the couple open their garden and the railway to raise money for causes close to their hearts: the Paulespury Players amateur dramatics society; The Lewis Foundation, which supplies gift packs to cancer patients in hospitals across the Midlands.

“I did not really know what I was getting into,” Ian said. “As I went through the planning stage I realised what it involved. Construction was a breeze, though, and we added more features, more complexity. Now my neighbour wants to build one in his garden.”

Ian works as regional director for business consultancy Tinderbox and hosts the Business Buzz Towcester networking group which meets monthly at Towcester Mill Brewery. “When I retire, I want to run it as a mini tourist attraction,” he said. “I did it it because it gives me a great sense of enjoyment. It kept my brain ticking over during lockdown.

“Why persist with the project? I have that sort of mentality. I like a challenge. The guy in the shop told me ‘This is something you cannot build on your own’ and when we started we had all sorts of naysayers.

“But I am the sort of person that if someone tells me I cannot do something then I am all the more determined to go off and do it.”

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