Layout Feature: Kevin Wilson’s ‘Bucks Hill’

Layout Feature: Kevin Wilson’s ‘Bucks Hill’

The inspiration to build Bucks Hill originally came from a visit to one of the Telford 0 gauge jamborees in the 1990s.

Kevin Wilson and Mike Morris were leaning on the barriers surrounding the ‘Holiday Haunts’ layout with its depiction of Brunel’s GWR main lines passing Dawlish on the Devon coast in the thirties.

It was late on the Sunday afternoon, the crowd had thinned out leaving them some elbow room, and as they watched the constant flow of quality rolling stock winding it’s way around the base of the cliffs they began to chat about building a layout incorporating some of the elements of this attractive setup.

The new project, preferably a prototypical location, would also feature a double tracked main line in a loop for a complete through run in both directions, but also allow the addition of a branch line junction for added interest.  After some research work, the favoured location eventually became Pontrilas (Three bridges) situated close to the Welsh border on the GWR/LMS main line between Abergavenny and Hereford.

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Pontrilas station with staff

For most of its working life, this outpost had been the junction station for the single line Golden Valley branch, winding its way north to reach Hay on Wye, serving the half dozen or so villages on either side of the River Dore.  The station had originally opened in 1853 and had grown to become an important facility for the many local industries.  The yard was built up level between the main lines and the road with a stone retaining wall, and a fan of sidings was laid out to cope with timber, coal and livestock.  A timber goods shed and a crane managed everything else, so there would be plenty of goods exchange from the branch traffic to the main lines for interest as well as a good variety of passenger traffic

The chosen period of history was again to be the thirties, and the surrounding landscape would become the rolling hills and valleys of the Welsh Marches, showing the thriving rural communities in villages and farms.  Narrow lanes meandered between the hamlets, carried over the river Dore, and its tributaries by stone bridges, with generous areas of ancient woodland surviving between the fields and pasture meadows.

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Over the next few years, Kevin designed and planned the project, working with friends to construct the many boxed plywood baseboards to his own design, each one profiled to represent the undulating local landscape.

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Five baseboards are clamped together with the track bed levelled, the profiles were then cut to match the surrounding contours. Expanded polystyrene foam blocks were then inserted in between the plywood ends, and the ground surfaces were produced by cutting and planing them down to size.

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The trackwork was hand laid using C&L components fitted to stained wooden sleepers, and gauged at 31mm between the platforms and through the straight stretches and pointwork at the station throat, this was done to encourage stable running and the adjustment closes the check rail gaps to finescale standards.

A great many modelling experts contributed to this layout, often from the earliest stages of planning, so a few credits for their modelling prowess should go to the late Carl Legg for his stalwart support and craftsmanship on the trackwork and buildings, Adrian Newsome for electrics, Barry & Gill Norman for their support and interest, as well as Gordon & Maggie Gravett, Peter Squibb, Mike Morris and Chris Gates.

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John Matthews bracket signal showing the robust mechanism, and Peter Squibb’s signal box.  Two examples of the kind of scratchbuilt structures that blend into the overall feel of the layout.

My involvement with this extraordinary project only began once the layout had already been exhibited a few times, so for me the story starts with my two day demo at Railex Aylesbury 2011 and an introductory handshake from Chris Gates, who sat down and took an interest in my backscenes & sketches.  We spoke for a while and he came back again later in the day with Kevin to discuss their idea of adding a background landscape of some description. Having exhibited a few times they were finding that the absence of a backscene was distracting to the viewers.

At the time I was still a month or so from finishing another commission, but as soon as this was completed, I paid a visit to Bucks Hill to see the layout in its purpose built barn known as the ‘Potting Shed’ to meet the Friday evening regulars, and explore the possibilities. I was met with a warm welcome and a nice cup of percolated coffee.

It’s no exaggeration to say that seeing this layout for the first time is quite an experience, It is a fairly large loop setup, divided in half lengthways with the box section baseboards giving an undulating contour to the landscape. The scenic breaks at either end are stone tunnel mouths with the main and branch lines disappearing from view and returning offstage to large storage sidings. The high level ground above the tunnels is modelled with tall mature trees with the tops of these being above eye level to the average viewer.

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A straight framed Bulldog 4-4-0 leaves the short 33yd tunnel directly to the south west of Bucks Hill station.  It will soon enter the longer tunnel beyond which forms the scenic break at the Abergavenny exit.  The tall mature trees behind the barn to the left of this view would eventually dictate the overall backscene height.

Following the prototype, the main lines to Abergavenny and Newport enter a short tunnel at the down end of the station, and emerge into the daylight again directly onto a short embankment broken with a stone occupation underbridge. A beautifully modelled meadow rises behind the curving embankment with a tumbledown barn to the left.  Mature trees on either side frame this scene, and from the viewer’s vantage point here looking north west, the pretty village of Ewyas Harold would have been apparent in the middle distance.

I find that during the process of researching a landscape, my first reference is a map from the chosen period.  Prominent features from a particular lineside viewpoint become apparent immediately, appearing in the foreground, middle distance or horizon, and even a fairly quick study helps to sort out the usefulness of old photographs at this stage. So as this aspect of Ewyas Harold is visible beyond the meadow, I thought it might be an idea to include it, below the horizon, and framed by the existing large trees either side.

This seemed to be a good place to start, so I welded up a steel frame with clips conforming to the existing layout contours, and loaded it onto the van.  This particular section was going to look better without any joins, and so I propped it up in the workshop the next day and made a start with some rough white card profiles to get the contours & balance of the scene to look right. The next few weeks were spent doing research and reference gathering, and then adapting it all to the backscene. There was very little depth to utilise at this point because of two lighting rig uprights, but eventually it started taking shape, and the ground levels were produced in glassfibre over the card formers. Work could begin on the semi relief building facades to match the ticket card profiles previously layered into position during the mock up stage. All this was being done without the sky panel behind so we could position it onto the back of the layout to study the effect.

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This is an example of the construction of the backscene framework used on Bucks Hill.  The folded steel angle was first formed to follow Kevin’s contours around the layout’s existing rear face, and once the profile was correct, a clip was fitted to register it in position, the framework can then be lifted off to be worked on, making exhibition transport relatively straightforward when finished.  The curving section around the base determines the lower edge, spacing and curvature of the 0.8mm alloy backscene panel, which is rivetted to an identically curved rail just behind its top edge.

It’s sitting up a bit here but you can see that when it is pushed down, the contours rest slightly below the grass surface.  It’s only tacked in the photo but it can now be taken away and welded up, ready to have the surface and distance layers built up.

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This view, seen over the embankment shows how we fitted this section of backscene into the layout environment behind the meadow.  The baseboard surface ends at the back edge of the small paddock behind the gate, and Chris went on to produce the hedgerow as a focal distance layer onto the baseboard. The figures and old wobbly gate are represented at about 6mm/1ft.

The Temple Bar inn to the right, and the tea rooms to the left are as close as possible to their appearance in the thirties. They are done as low relief facades after mocking up their sizes and positions in card from my reference.   I did use some considerable license with the church, and loosely based it on a similar example at Peterchurch, a few stops up the Golden Valley branch line.

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Plenty of activity at the station building between trains, the station building has bags of character, and the bay platform behind the nameboard was occupied with an all stations departure to Hay eight times a day.  The figures are mostly Omen, expertly painted by Peter Brady, a noted painter of military miniatures.  Looking over beyond the livestock pens and yard office is Callow Hill Wood, a dense strip of ancient woodland still thriving today.  The backscene allowed the positioning of a row of G P O telegraph poles along the roadside.

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The simple timber footbridge was sited over the tunnel mouth, and must have caught some travellers unaware of approaching trains.  Between the staircase on the up platform, and the station approach road was a well tended kitchen garden.

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Even though there is quite a bit of activity taking place, this yard overview has a feeling of space and quiet.  In the intervals between passing trains and occasional shunting moves, the ambient speaker modules hidden around the layout add the typical sounds of the surrounding countryside.  A light shower of rain can be heard from time to time, mingling with the near continuous sounds of birdsong and distant sheep bleating in the meadows.

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The old stone church of St Mary survives to this day at Kenderchurch and appears clearly on the horizon in many photos of Pontrilas at the turn of the last century.  Seen here through a gap between some of the larger trees, the view from the station was already partly obscured by natural growth by the mid thirties.

Bucks Hill’s scenic board actually finishes at the fence line at this point, and the backscene elements were colour matched and graduated in smaller scales until the perceived distance illusion was maximised. The low relief representation of the little church was drawn from reference, made in plastikard, then painted with matt Humbrols mixed on a palette.  The roof slates were done with sticky backed paper sealed down with superglue and the windows were clear glazing acetate, scribed diagonally with a scalpel blade tip.

Chris and I worked together to add and remove areas of foliage and ground cover, and we were both keen to add some more buildings.  In fact I had originally proposed a row of cottages portrayed in low relief, and modelled to 6mm/1ft on the original examples that remain to this day behind the goods yard retaining wall at Pontrilas.  We eventually settled on the placement of a smithy with its accompanying cottage alongside the narrow lane leading away from the yard entrance towards Kenderchurch.  The timber forge building was scratchbuilt and weathered and has a fully detailed interior visible through the open doors.  This structure was permanently attached to the backscene and blended into the environment.

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Like most farrier and wheelwright shops it has a small yard alongside the lane, and is situated at the edge of a small wood. The stone cottage alongside had to be constructed separately, and like most of the structures and fittings on Bucks Hill, it fits into a shallow socket in the baseboard surface.

John Cooke’s ramshackle forge stands at the roadside surrounded by the usual clutter of broken farm implements, buckets and bedsteads.  William Prosser’s cart from nearby Kentchurch (not to be confused with Kenderchurch) is being repaired.  Mrs Cooke was a dressmaker and the family of five lived in the little stone cottage alongside. The forge is fully detailed inside & out, the hearth glows red and all the tools are hung up around the walls.  The blacksmith works a bracket at the anvil, the work actually glows red hot.  Alongside, the farrier shoes a sturdy ploughing horse with a real hair mane and tail.  A climbing rose surrounds the cottage porch with petals made from rolled up sticky labels, cut & eased out with the tip of a blade. A blob of superglue gel was enough to fix the flowers in position.

Tucked under the baseboards, there are ambient sound modules that each play a different seamless looped MP3 soundtracks created from digitally recorded sample libraries.  All three of these are different to the next and they add the background noise appropriate to each location, differing native birdsong, rain, as well as more locally specific sounds such as occasional pealing bells from the church tower, and the ting ting sound of hammer and anvil opposite the forge.  The seven overlaid tracks are individually adjusted for frequency, relative volume etc.

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Kevin scratchbuilt the timber fencing from wood, a Dean Brake Third of 1901 pauses at the end of the down platform at the tail of a mixed train.

Below are a few pictures of some of the magnificent stock that can be seen on Bucks Hill.

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Time to knock off now, thoroughly enjoyed my visit to see such a layout

Paul Bambrick 

November 2016

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