This Enchanting Model Village Is A Short Train Ride From London

This Enchanting Model Village Is A Short Train Ride From London
It's fun to play giants

On 28 October 2009, police detectives were called to a small Buckinghamshire village, and the scene of a curious murder.

The victim was found on the floor, trussed up like Gulliver, stabbed fatally in the side. He'd been left to die among the 1:12-1:15 scale buildings of a quaint model village. If that sounds like something from an episode from Midsomer Murders, that's because it was.

You may unwittingly know Bekonscot Model Village from its many appearances on TV and banking ads, although perhaps you're one of the 1,400 people who've come to marvel at this inconceivably detailed toy town, every sunny bank holiday.

As it reached its 90th birthday in August 2019, over 15 million people had visited Bekonscot. That's the population of Istanbul. Whether they admitted it or not, each and every one of them must have got a kick from looming over its pitched roofs and church steeples; peering into its town halls, and back gardens flapping with laundry.

Bekonscot railway station in 1932

"We don't just build a house and plonk it down"

Keeping watch over Bekonscot is a tall order. Brian Newman-Smith has done so since 1996. He and his team of architects, engineers, gardeners and model makers oversee a sprawling landscape of seven 'towns'. From Southpool with its dry docks and rock climbers, to Greenhaily where a never-ending cricket match is played beneath the swishing sails of a windmill — each has its own identity. Its own sense of community, almost.

"We don't just build a house, plonk it down. It's the whole scene you've got to think of," says the model village's managing director.

Newman-Smith's team is a community too; the in-house workshops are a hive of industry. This is a labour of love. People tend to work here for years, says Newman-Smith, retire, then carry on working.

Brian Newman-Smith - the all-seeing eye of Bekonscot

A lady called Lorraine single-handedly makes the people of Bekonscot out of resin (it used to be wood). "We still lose figures out there," says Newman-Smith, perhaps wistfully recalling a soldier written off by a toddler's sandal or a cricketer pocketed by a klepto in the making.

"From here, you get to play God"

Behind the scenes, the immensity of the operation becomes clear. We're taken into the signal box — a real one — which controls the vast network of miniature trains. They all run to a timetable, pausing at stations, and occasionally derailed by the rogue finger of a kid nurturing an appetite for destruction.

A box room next door looks like the back end of a Google cloud data centre, woven with wires, blinking with lights labelled: 'Funicular'. 'Steam Roller'. 'Oil Pump.' This is where everything from the sails of that windmill to the volume of the funfair is controlled.

From here, you get to play God.

This high and mighty job title includes coming up with the names of shops — brilliantly bad puns like Traders of the Lost Art, and Lee Key (he's a plumber). But it comes with its responsibilities too. In winter, Bekonscot is gradually brought to a halt, all the models hauled in for touch-ups and repairs.

"People think we're sitting around, eating grapes!" laughs Newman-Smith.

"He got the scale wrong. He couldn't get it out of the door"

Oddly, for a place that brings so much unmitigated joy, we have a London accountant to thank for Bekonscot. Roland Callingham purchased two acres of land in Beaconsfield in 1927, putting in a pool and a tennis court. Soon, he was hosting a steady stream of politicians, aristocrats and minor royals. At weekends, they came up to escape the London pollution, take a dip, and no doubt enjoy a glass of champagne.

Not long after this, Mrs Callingham saw an opportunity to rid the house of her husband's model railway. "She made a short but moving speech which suggested that either the indoor model railway went, or she did."  

The chalk outline of the Midsomer murder

Callingham, not fancying a divorce, shifted his train set outdoors, and the seeds of Bekonscot were planted.

It wasn't plain sailing. "The first model he made, he got the scale wrong," says Newman-Smith, "He couldn't get it out of the door, had to use a window.

"It wasn't a good start for someone building a model village."

But though the pool and the tennis courts eventually went — along with the celebs — Bekonscot stayed. And then it grew. "One day someone said to Roland 'why don't you open it to the public?'

"On 3 August 1929, he stuck a bucket outside the door here and people threw their thruppenny bits, pennies, in here," says Newman-Smith. "That's how it started."

Bekonscot earns extra cash by 'leasing' shops to brands like Marks & Spencer

Now a registered charity, Bekonscot has raised over £5.5m for good causes. It also laughed in the face of those minor royals, when, on 20 April 1934, Princess Elizabeth visited on the eve of her eighth birthday. She fell in love with it and came back on more than once occasion, along with Princess Margaret, Queen Mary and George VI.

Princess Elizabeth - now Queen - visits Bekonscot in 1938

"It's a form of escapism"

Like any real town, Bekonscot faces problems with space and planning permission. Callingham's two-acreplot is now all-but built on. If Bekonscot ever had a green belt, it was trashed a while back. But that doesn't stop the team from dreaming up new designs.

One of the engineers, Andrew, approaches Newman-Smith, brandishing a roll of blueprints, "In the next six to eight weeks I'd like to be working on this project," he announces, unrolling the plans, and revealing a scaled down art deco confection — a real building that he passes regularly.

Since the mid 1990s, Bekonscot stopped trying to move with the times, and went back to embedding itself firmly where it all began, in the 1930s.

It's a form of escapism, drifting your gaze over twisting, hedge-lined roads scattered with olde-world pubs; an airfield puttering with De Havilland bi-planes; a thatched house that's perpetually on fire (disconcerting on a day when it's 38 degrees).

The fire in this thatched building is never put out

"A kind of real-life Where's Wally"

Bekonscot is also a kind of real-life Where's Wally. It might only be on your second time round that you notice a string of tiny bed sheets knotted together and dangled from the open window of a prison. Only on your fourth time that you see the felon in question legging it over the racecourse at Ascot, pursued by a bobby.

'Please Go Round Again' urges a sign, as you come to the end of the experience.

Seaside postcard comedy pervades: a man teeters on a ladder as his mate holding it below is distracted by a woman. There's a splash of gallows humour too, like the fox hunt, frozen in time ("the fox never gets caught," argues Newman-Smith).

Staunch Londoners will get a kick from recreations from 'New Town' (opened in 2018 and apparently Bekonscot's final town). It has a replica of Perivale's Hoover Factory and Hanton Road tube station (directly influenced by Charles Holden's Arnos Grove). Elsewhere, Bekonscot has a tiny version of Berthold Lubetkin's swirling penguin pool.

"The inspiration for model villages the world over"

While much of Bekonscot takes its cue from human-sized architecture, the near-century-old model village has itself been the inspiration for model villages the world over. The creators of Madurodam — now a much-loved tourist attraction in the Netherlands — studied Bekonscot in detail, before going off to put together their own miniature wonderland.

Bekonscot also sparked the mind of a great children's writer into life. Callingham would often chat over the fence to his neighbour, Enid Blyton. It's said she hadn't written a single word before she moved here. Yet from her sprawling Beaconsfield house, Green Hedges, she suddenly started penning her classic children's books — The Famous Five, The Magic Faraway Tree, Noddy.

Admiring the model minster in 1932

Green Hedges itself has been demolished — replaced perhaps patronisingly — with the Blyton Close cul-de-sac. The house is more fondly remembered in a model recreation at Bekonscot, a figurine of Blyton bashing away at her typewriter, 10 to the dozen.

It's only a matter of time before another fertile mind-in-the making is set into motion, thanks to this impossibly wonderful village.

Bekonscot Model Village and Railway, Warwick Road, Beaconsfield, HP9 2PL

Last Updated 06 September 2019