The Germ of an Idea

In the late 1970’s, I moved into a house with a small garden. Having built indoor railways at various scales from Z to O, depending on the space available and the stability of my lifestyle, I decided that now was the time for a garden railway.

I was fascinated by the very occasional articles in "Railway Modeller" and other modelling magazines, showing a new (to me) scale/gauge combination using 16mm to the foot scale on 32mm gauge to represent 2 foot narrow gauge and immortalised by Peco as SM32. It appeared that this would allow live steam to be successfully run in your normal suburban garden. I found out about the 16mm Narrow Gauge Modellers' Association, and read their journal, which was full of helpful advice, and decided that it would be possible to model a typical British narrow-gauge light railway. My particular inspiration was the Pentewan Harbour Light railway, which connected the harbour with the St. Austell china clay works. The new line was to be the Pigsty Hill Light Railway, after the local name for my part of Bristol with, of course, the same initials P.H.L.R. I discovered Brandbright of Norfolk, who supply all the bits and pieces from complete locomotives to wheel sets and couplings.

The Planning Stage

It appeared that, in the past, the hobby required either engineering expertise or deep pockets. The appearance of the Mamod train set suggested a way round this. There were reasonably affordable add-ons which would enable the beast to pull more than its own weight, and it seemed that radio control might be the answer to the Mamod's tendency to shun any speed between Virgin Trains (immobile) and TGV (300kph). I therefore bought a Mamod train set and ordered the appropriate bits and pieces (safety valve, methylated spirit burner and radio control gear).

Steam, even with radio control, requires a circuit or a very long main line. To run a circuit in my garden involving any straight track at all meant a minimum radius of about four feet. I was brought up on PECO Streamline in all its manifestations, so I ordered the requisite amount of Smerty-Two track to build a simple ground-level oval.

Building and rebuilding

This is when my troubles started. The main problem, which hadn't occurred to me, was that my garden was genuinely small. (I began to realise just how vague the term was when I picked up a book "The Small Garden", which showed me how to plant up my quarter-acre small garden). This was going to have a number of implications which I was to learn the hard way.

The SM32 track arrived and I commenced bending it - and I mean bending! Curving the track to the intended four foot radius proved nearly impossible by hand without putting joggles and doglegs into the track. With hindsight, of course, I should have built the appropriate jigs in my workroom and bent it there. What made perfect sense when bending OO track to four foot radius was a recipe for disaster here. And disaster it was!  


I laid the track down and ballasted it in the garden section and laid it on thin battens in the patio section. It looked good for a week and then slowly straightened in the horizontal plane and twisted in the vertical. Furthermore, what was intended as a ruling curve of four feet was actually eighteen inch curves alternating with straight track. The locomotive went into warp speed on the slightest down slope and derailed within a yard. I won't distress you with the full horror of the year I spent trying to get this to work. Let's just say it put me off running trains for the whole of the next summer. Instead, I started building rolling stock, initially from Brandbright kits, but later with scratch-built bodies on Brandbright wheels and axle-boxes, in the hope that a solution would come along.

Eventually, I sat and thought about this and decided that what I was doing wrong was that I was using (or abusing) flexible track. When I visited the Chalk Pits Museum at Amberley I realised that the Mamod track with its 2'9 radius was more prototypical than I thought. For very light railways (such as peat railways, a local speciality in Somerset), sectional track with a very tight radius was used. In particular, "Jubilee" track was designed to be carried and laid by hand. Thus inspired, I relaid the line using Mamod sectional track on a foundation of treated wood. The tighter radius allowed me to create a dumbbell layout using the very limited space between the extension and the back window to allow continuous running.




This was much better for the battery-powered industrial diesels which I was starting to construct (an interest kindled by the Amberley visit), but when running live steam it demanded effective radio-control if the train was to stay on the track. Here, another hideous problem raised its head.

More Problems

Radio control works well in a large open garden. In a small garden with one end surrounded by buildings, there was a major problem with "glitches" caused by the signal reflecting off metal within the buildings. In addition, the Mamod track acted as the worst kind of occasional conductor, so the locomotive was sometimes earthed, sometimes not.

Briefly, the result is very similar to the double images you'll occasionally see on a television. In the radio-control receiver the two signals interfere with each other and the result is random movements of the control arm. With a steam engine, this can be disastrous. A sudden glitch can swing the regulator wide open, almost inevitably on one of those tight curves, or bring it to a shuddering halt. In either case, my lovingly built rolling stock crashed onto the path, rolled into the gravel or, on one horrible occasion, burned away merrily from spilt methylated spirit as I tried to get to the most awkward corner of the garden. To give credit where it's due, the locomotive itself seemed virtually indestructible.

I tried a Brandbright vertical-boiler geared locomotive (made by Roundhouse, as I recently discovered) which was superb at handling the curves and looked superb with a scratch-built Wisbech & Upwell-ish tram body, but was really out of place in the kind of railway I had in mind. Still, I didn't lose on the deal, as I was able to sell it with the body at very nearly its original price.

So, what had I achieved? I had a relatively simple track layout which needed radio control to operate in any vaguely realistic way. I had a steam locomotive which was uncontrollable with or without radio control, and a couple od battery diesels. I had a fair selection of rolling stock, most of which had more or less survived the treatment it had received from the Mad Mamod.

If at first you don't succeed...

I came to the bitter conclusion that, if I couldn't make radio control work, then I would have to rejig the layout for manual operation. This meant raised track - Mamod-chasing at ground level is a young man's game, although my training as a chemist had given me the necessary asbestos fingers. It also meant going back to four-foot radius, which forced me back to the original oval.

I therefore decided to build an appropriately curved (four-foot radius curves) low brick wall with a raised bed behind it in the formal part of the garden and to use old breeze blocks for a track foundation in the other half. I built the low brick wall (my first effort as a brickie, which I am glad to say is as good as new after ten years), and laid the breeze blocks. In the arc between the breeze-blocks and the path I built my first pond using the excavated soil for the raised flowerbeds which I then planted out.

I un-kinked the SM32 track and preformed it in the workshop, as I should have in the first place. This was laid on top of the wall and the blocks and cemented in with a mixture of sand and a little cement. The Mamod track was brought indoors for use as a test track.

This was fairly successful but intensely boring. Simple tail-chasing with a forty-foot run is less than exhilarating, even with live steam.




... learn your lessons...

In the garden, the planning phase is vital.

Indoor flexible track, even when tightly curved, can be pinned into position without being properly formed; outdoors; it goes where IT wants to go. Indoors, you can rip down a hill and replace it with a valley in an afternoon; outdoors, you're looking at a week's back-breaking work. Indoors, any gradient which doesn't look ridiculous will work perfectly happily; outdoors, a barely perceptible downgrade may cause disaster to a steam locomotive without adequate radio control. Indoors, your locomotives will take the smallest curves; outdoors, you're going to have to think seriously about radius, speed and wheelbase.

...and give up

At this point, I pretty well gave up. I pulled up the track which was becoming overgrown with disuse;  I confined myself to the very occasional evening repairing and building rolling stock and running this on the indoor circuit.

The new flower bed and pond looked nice, but it always reminded me that I'd been beaten, not an experience that I enjoy.  


For images from this period see The PHLR Marks I & II - Pictures from 1983-5


Now read on...

The Pigsty Hill Light Railway - a Very Small Garden Railway


Early Days


Fitting a steam railway into a small garden


How to get it really, really, wrong