In 1925, aged just 18, Roye England sailed aboard the liner Oronsay from Fremantle to Plymouth, and on the train journey from there to London his love affair with two things began — the English countryside and the Great Western Railway.
The countryside in the beautiful Vale of the White Horse in Oxfordshire especially appealed to him, with its rolling hills, tree-lined lanes and delightfully bucolic villages. The Great Western Railway’s shining green steam locomotives, with their copper-capped chimneys and sparkling brass nameplates, hauling chocolate-and-cream coloured carriages, blended with this countryside perfectly.
However, as Roye’s stay in England extended into the 1930s, he could see the country was changing. Beautiful thatched cottages that had stood for centuries were being demolished to make way for modern monstrosities lacking character; winding unsealed lanes were being tarred over; manual farming practices were being replaced by mechanisation. He saw that a whole way of life was disappearing for ever.
Roye was determined to preserve something of this England he loved for later generations and the way he did it was unique. He was a skilled modeller and started creating in miniature some of the most attractive buildings he saw — not just the thatched cottages but farm buildings, village shops and, of course, railway stations. The scale he chose for his models was 4mm to the foot, 1/76th scale, one well-known to railway modellers.
Roye’s efforts attracted other highly skilled modellers to his cause. Some were also experts in modelling buildings while others produced outstandingly detailed locomotives and rolling stock or astonishingly realistic landscapes.
After many ups and downs, the result is Pendon Museum in the Oxfordshire village of Long Wittenham, housed rather incongruously in a modern, factory-like structure at one end of the village. But while it is bland outside, inside the miniature villages, countryside and railways take your breath away.
Madder Valley, Dartmoor and the Vale are three beautiful models preserving the 1930s rural way of life in miniature.
While the first two are absolutely outstanding, it is the Vale — with its village of Pendon Parva — that is the jewel in the crown.
The size of the model alone is astonishing, being 22m long by 10m wide. At one end, the fictitious village of Pendon Parva occupies a hill overlooking the Vale (Pendon Parva translates as “Little Village on the Hill”), through which the Great Western Railway runs. Each building took up to 1000 hours of painstaking work to complete, which is understandable when you realise each brick, leaf of ivy and roof tile has been modelled individually.
The smallest object is a white butterfly, less than 1mm across, sitting atop a small cabbage in which, of course, each leaf was modelled separately. A tiny robin rests on the handle of a delicately modelled spade; chickens roam backyards; sheets flutter realistically on washing lines (the model depicts a Monday, washing day). Look for the hedgehog in the lane and the fox escaping with a chicken in its mouth, leaving the farmer scratching his head as he counts his flock.
The detail is astonishing and the whole thing adds up to what is surely the most spectacular model in the world.
Train buffs won’t be disappointed, either. From the mighty King Class hauling express passenger trains, to humble tank engines trundling along with freight trains, the locomotives are made predominantly of brass and are so realistic you need to remind yourself they are just models.
They don’t just run round and round but run as they would have in the 1930s and not necessarily very frequently — just like the real thing — which makes each train an event to savour.
Roye died in 1995 but his dream lives on through the work of a band of volunteers. You may not be able to travel back in time to experience 1930s rural England but, at Pendon Museum, you can experience the next best thing.
Pendon Museum is in Long Wittenham, near Abingdon in Oxfordshire, about 60km west of London off the A4074 or A4130 main roads. It is open at weekends from 11am-4pm. www.pendonmuseum.com
By public transport, the nearest railway station is Appleford (hourly trains from London Paddington on Saturdays, less frequently on Sundays) from where there is an easy 2km walk across fields, or catch a more frequent train to Didcot Parkway and hire a taxi for a few pounds from there.
Main picture photograph by Chris Nevard