Celebrity hobbies that make
even Rod Stewart's railway models look cool
Last updated at 00:50am on 25th October 2007
First printed in the
As Rod Stewart is 'outed'
as a model railway fanatic, Mail Science Editor Michael
Hanlon has a small confession of his own to make...
can see them in the newsagent's - shifty, furtive, eyes
glancing to the left and to the right, in case anyone they
know might see them.
These men -
they are nearly always men - then slither
over to the specialist magazine stands.
With a quick
movement, the required publication is grabbed and the till
the shame is too great; a disguise is needed. So another
magazine is taken, something wholesome and respectable -
anything will do - into the pages of which the offending
publication can be slid.
Then, at the
till, the final hurdle, the hope that the cashier will
not, as in that Woody Allen film, bark out the name of the
publication across the shop floor.
Modeller? Does anyone have a price for Railway Modeller?"
the shame would be complete, the humiliation absolute.
I know of
what I speak because I - and I confess this publicly for
the first time (friends and family are already in on the
secret) - am not unacquainted with the so-called hobby of
Scroll down for
Cover version: Stewart's
model of Grand Central Station in the Forties
"Hobby", "Railways" and
"models" - are there any three more shameful words in the
For years I
have kept it quiet, but now, with a bit of celebrity
endorsement, it is time to come out of the attic and
declare my interest in the pastime that dare not speak its
It is a
relief to find out that I am not alone.
For it was
Rod Stewart, no less, he of the skin-tight leopardskin
trousers and a string of slinky blondes to his credit, who
emerged as the unlikely champion of this most unlikely
the crooning, the blondes and heaven knows what else, it
seems that Rod has been creating a wholly magnificent
replica of New York's Grand Central Station, complete with
100ft of track, buildings and figures in 1940s period
dress in one of his no-doubt numerous attics.
Railroader: The magazine features the 62-year-old
rocker's American model.
impressive layout graces the cover of this month's Model
Railroader, an honour he says means more than "the cover
of Rolling Stone".
And he's not
Holland, one of the coolest men on the planet, pianist,
mover in toff circles and doyen of live music, is also a
model railway man.
impresario Pete Waterman, and was (rather less
fashionably) Hughie Green of Opportunity Knocks fame.
So what is
the appeal of this most arcane of pursuits?
And can it
really be the case that toy trains are about to become
Tim Rayner, editor of Railway Modeller magazine, "the
hobby", as railway modellers like to refer to their
pastime, never really went away.
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model: Stewart with wife Penny Lancaster
been there," he says, with men throughout the land making
their excuses after dinner and retreating to their lofts
to be at one with their soldering irons and track plans.
recent years a quiet revolution has been under way.
Hornby, one of Britain's oldest model railway firms, was
declared Company of the Year by the Financial Times and
Stock Exchange - making millions of pounds per annum from
its models now made in a stateofthe art factory in
Stewart spends car journeys reading about his two
passions (other than music) - football and model
Some of this
is undoubtedly down to the traditional children's market.
cleaned up with its Harry Potter and Thomas the Tank
Engine ranges. Children seem to be turning away from
"virtual" toys, played with on a computer screen, and back
towards something more substantial.
But the bulk
of Hornby's profits come from a series of beautifully
made, delicate models that can cost hundreds of pounds a
pop and which are certainly not aimed at children.
So who is
buying them? People like me, it seems.
Men - not
exclusively, but mostly - in their 30s and 40s who had a
train set in their youth and are looking to recreate that
lost hobby, this time with the cash to do it properly.
A friend of
mine, who is also afflicted, put it neatly: "You grow out
of model trains. You get into girls and music, jobs and so
on, but you always come back to trains in the end."
demographics have changed, too.
In the old
days, making model railway layouts was associated with the
skilled working classes, the preserve perhaps of retired
fitters and boilermen and people who worked on the real
railways, the sort of folk who used to be the bedrock of
Britain but who now belong to a vanished age.
miniature trains have become a classless hobby.
Tim Rayner, exhibitors book fancy stands at the National
Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, whereas in decades past
this pastime was showcased in church halls and schools.
So, what is
It is hard
For me, it
is the sheer number of skills you need to master to create
a working layout.
You have to
be a semi-competent carpenter, electrician, metalworker,
painter, sculptor and designer to make anything which
functions mechanically and looks good.
something about trains that is endlessly fascinating.
To me, the
idea of standing on a cold station platform and counting
train numbers as they zoom past is beyond madness.
again, some would say the same about my habit of
disappearing into the loft to build tunnels and stations
and watch miniaturised Staniers and Gresleys, Bulleid
Pacifics and even modern diesels whirling past at top
that one can create a world, however imperfect, in
miniature is hugely appealing.
point of model railways is, of course, that one is never
I started my
layout seven years ago and it is nowhere near complete.
dread the day when it is, because then, I suspect, I shall
start to lose interest.
project is to build a small mountain range at one end.
That should take me safely up to 2010.
to having a model railway habit is hard.
happens at a dinner party, after a few drinks.
probably be my wife who spills the beans.
be tittering, some embarrassment, people looking at their
watches and wondering if it's time to leave and
considering whether they still want to be my friend.
almost inevitably, something strange will happen.
someone will say. "Can I have a look?" And up to the loft
we all troop, being careful not to trip over the
unfinished wiring or fall down the ladder-hole.
work?" someone will ask.
course it does. I fire up the transformers and set a train
in motion. Yes, it goes, and then you can see the light in
their eyes, those oh-so-cynical friends.
can almost hear them thinking, "I'd like one of those.
Wonder if we've got room. . ."
railways may be more popular than ever, but they still
retain the image of perhaps ultimate nerdery in this
In the U.S.,
'model railroading' is hugely popular, with millions of
adherents of all ages and
importantly) both sexes.
cities contain several model shops, well- stocked
cornucopia compared with our dusty stores, and there is no
shame attached to having some trains in the attic.
the most impressive model railway layout I have seen is
the gigantic construction in the Industrial Museum of
The size of
maybe a couple of tennis courts, this magnificent creation
is America in miniature, complete with a 3D facsimile of
the Rocky Mountains, the Great Lakes and Chicago itself,
skyscrapers and all.
And this was
built not by a few beardy, middle-aged geeks, but by
dozens of volunteers, including many teenage boys and
girls who belong to local model railway clubs.
be no embarrassment associated with model trains.
Stewart and Jools Holland can do it, then it is cool
enough for anyone to admit to.
the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your shame.