Paul Merton tells us about his fascinating rail hobby and its links to Donny
Words and Photography: Rachel Horne
Paul, how the heck did you end up at Roundhouse Engineering? It’s a hidden gem for many Doncasterians…
My friend Bob has a pretty large garden and owns a model live replica rail set that runs on actual steam. I had a train set when I was a boy, a kinda standard train set you get for Christmas. On the front of the box there was a magnificent painting of the Flying Scotsman coming out of a hill with all the lushness and greenery but when you get it out of
the box, it didn’t look anything like the image on the front.
That was always a bit disappointing for me. Indoor rail is very static, you can only work with what you’ve got but Bob’s garden is really impressive. It’s more like the real thing. They run on distilled water and butane gas, like a scaled down replica of existing trains.
Would you say it’s quite a creative hobby?
It’s quite an extraordinary hobby and very engrossing. Collectors like Bob design their trains to complement their gardens. Some even put small cameras on the front of the trains and film them in motion. They hold their value too and are collector’s items. They just need to be well looked after.
How was the visit?
Roundhouse were really kind to give us a tour of the factory. I used to work for the Department of Employment years ago when I first left school and I visited a few factories, you don’t always see happy people but everybody at Roundhouse seemed happy, the job satisfaction is very clear, because you are making incredibly beautiful objects. It was actually a joy to see people very happy in what they were doing. Also, Roundhouse is the world’s leading manufacturers of what they do, they are known across the world.
It’s impressive to have such a success niche business here in Doncaster, especially in such an economic decline.
Yes, they seem to be doing really well, in fact Channel 4 produced a TV Show recently with a Roundhouse engine. They created a miniature railway that spanned 74 miles across the Highlands of Scotland. During the 19th Century it wasn’t possible to reach the Highlands by train as the terrain was too difficult to build the tracks on. I think this will have helped to build the popularity of the Garden Rail. A lot of people haven’t experienced it, they might be familiar with what people have in their loft, but they don’t realise these models run on real steam. They are very nostalgic. I think that’s some of the appeal of it.
Did Roundhouse show you and Bob the coal fired trains? I was quite impressed with that, Doncaster doesn’t have any pits left but we’re still building trains that run on the coal…
Bob’s actually looking into buying a train that will run from coal, it’s bought in a kit form which you can assemble. It’s actually welsh coal, it comes in tiny pieces a bit like granulated sugar, and you get a little shovel to build the fire.
My uncle Jim actually used to do that job on the old steam trains. Apparently, it was hard graft, but he loved it and only left because he didn’t like the hours.
I imagine it was a very hard job, especially for the crews that worked them. It’s nostalgic for people to look back.
These days we can get to London from Doncaster in 1 hour 20 mins and with High Speed Rail it’s going to cut that down even further.
The first Edinburgh to London train service was around 1860 and took 10 hours. It would have seemed like a miracle to travel that journey in a day. This is long before the motor car. You could go by horse, of course, but it would take you 2 weeks to do 300 miles. To leave Edinburgh and arrive in London must have felt like the equivalent of flying to the moon.
In Doncaster we don’t take our rail heritage that seriously. Sadly, the National Rail Museum is based in York. Our new Cultural Centre opens in 2020 and will have a life size replica of the Flying Scotsman. That’s good news. After visiting Roundhouse, I was thinking it would be amazing to have a beautiful garden rail track as a public artwork in the town centre somewhere? A place where children could learn about steam engines. Most local kids will have never seen a live locomotive.
I think something like that could be pretty impressive and not too costly to pull off. Children will be fascinated by them, I’m sure, and in Doncaster you’ve got the world’s experts as your consultants.
Are you planning on visiting Doncaster again with Bob?
Well, I’d love too. In fact, I’ll come and open your garden railway when you have the official opening.
If you think we should help create
a Garden Rail track in Doncaster, please show your support by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org