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Celebrity hobbies that make even Rod Stewart's railway models look cool

By MICHAEL HANLON - More by this author Last updated at 00:50am on 25th October 2007  First printed in the Daily Mail

As Rod Stewart is 'outed' as a model railway fanatic, Mail Science Editor Michael Hanlon has a small confession of his own to make...

 

You 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 approached.

Sometimes, 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.

 

"Railway Modeller? Does anyone have a price for Railway Modeller?"

For then, 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 model railways.

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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 English language?

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 name.

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 hobby.

In between 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.

 Model Railroader: The magazine features the 62-year-old rocker's American model.

Rod's 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 alone.

Jools 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.

As is 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 cool?

According to 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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The latest model: Stewart with wife Penny Lancaster

"It's always 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.

But in recent years a quiet revolution has been under way.

In 2002, 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 southern China.

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In print: Stewart spends car journeys reading about his two passions (other than music) - football and model railways

 

Some of this is undoubtedly down to the traditional children's market.

Hornby has 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."

The 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.

Now, miniature trains have become a classless hobby.

According to 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 the appeal?

It is hard to say.

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.

There is 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.

But then 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 speed.

The idea that one can create a world, however imperfect, in miniature is hugely appealing.

And the point of model railways is, of course, that one is never finished.

I started my layout seven years ago and it is nowhere near complete.

Indeed, I dread the day when it is, because then, I suspect, I shall start to lose interest.

My next project is to build a small mountain range at one end. That should take me safely up to 2010.

Confessing to having a model railway habit is hard.

It usually happens at a dinner party, after a few drinks.

It'll probably be my wife who spills the beans.

There will 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.

But then, almost inevitably, something strange will happen.

"Er," 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.

"Does it work?" someone will ask.

Yes, of 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.

"Hmm," you can almost hear them thinking, "I'd like one of those. Wonder if we've got room. . ."

Model railways may be more popular than ever, but they still retain the image of perhaps ultimate nerdery in this country.

Not so abroad.

In the U.S., 'model railroading' is hugely popular, with millions of adherents of all ages and

(most importantly) both sexes.

Most U.S. 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.

Certainly the most impressive model railway layout I have seen is the gigantic construction in the Industrial Museum of Chicago.

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.

There should be no embarrassment associated with model trains.

If Rod Stewart and Jools Holland can do it, then it is cool enough for anyone to admit to.

Modellers of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your shame.

 

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