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When Tom Willcox and wife Shirley were looking to move to the Chilterns to be nearer to their grown-up children, the potential purchase of a house came with an important proviso.
“We told the vendors we’d buy it,” says Tom, “but only if we could get permission to extend the garage.”
Fortunately the necessary consent was obtained, and the extra space was built to provide room for Tom’s 1929 Lagonda Close-Coupled Saloon, Shirley’s ’30 MG M-type and, just as importantly, for Tom’s pre-war Hornby train set.
Willcox was introduced to the world of model railways at a young age. “Dad worked for the Southern Railway,” he recounts, “and built me a set.”
He still has some of that original layout, including a clockwork Hornby ‘No 1 Special’ that he’s owned since 1939.
But pride of place in the impressive miniature landscape goes to a station handmade by dad Stanley despite the privations of WW2: “Tin toys weren’t available during the war, so Dad built it using packaging from a Red Cross food parcel.”
Another prized possession came from an uncle captured by the Japanese: “My aunt and cousin were on the last boat out of Singapore, and I was given a 1912 Carette goods van that belonged to my uncle. It was missing its roof, so Dad made one from a tin of Robinson’s Patent Groats!”
Thankfully, Uncle Donald survived the Burma railway to see his old goods wagon in its repaired state.
Growing up, Willcox developed a love of old cars and motorcycles, and most of his childhood toys were given away.
But on a visit to his parents in the ’70s, his mother mentioned that she still had the train set – did he want it back?
“I wasn’t sure that I did,” he smiles, “but when I felt the weight of the trains, and smelled the oil, the memories came flooding back.”
Rebuilt in the loft at home, the layout brought relief from the stresses of running his own business: “When I got home, Shirley would hand me a gin and tonic and I’d go straight up and run the trains. All my worries would disappear.”
Most of the pieces had survived remarkably well, thanks to that wartime childhood: “When I was a boy, I knew there was no chance of replacing these things, so I played with them very carefully.”
As Willcox rediscovered his childhood hobby, he expanded both layout and rolling stock.
“I’ve been quite lucky with buying and selling,” he says, “so I’ve not had to spend too much on it.”
The set now boasts eight locomotives and an impressive range of carriages and goods wagons, and is dotted with stations, engine sheds, enamel figures and Minic model cars: “None of it is to scale, but it looks all right.”
He’s very much a hands-on enthusiast, and is currently rewiring it for night-time running: “I’ve converted some of the signals into lamp posts, and an electric Metropolitan locomotive has a bulb on the front. It looks really impressive as it goes around.”
While his children share a love for old cars – daughter Nicola now drives the 1927 3 Litre Bentley he has owned for 60 years – the passion for model railways has skipped a generation.
It’s grandson Charlie, 14, who comes over to help with the trains.
“I sit here with a glass of red and watch Charlie run the set,” says Willcox with pride. “I’m sure Dad would be amazed and delighted that the set he started building more than 80 years ago still gives so much pleasure.”
Images: Tony Baker