In some circles, the term “anorak” is pejorative, indicating greasy outdoor clothing, a camera and an unhealthy predilection for standing on railway bridges and the ends of station platforms with a notebook.
In a particularly fine evocation of the attraction of watching steel wheels on steel rails, the journalist Mike Carter, [‘Shunted on a branch line to nowhere’, The Observer, June 25th 2000], tells of the reaction when he asked the assistant at W H Smith, Birmingham New Street, if they still sold trainspotting books: “‘I don’t think we sell that type of thing any more’, she said, looking at this 35-year-old man as if I’d just asked for the latest copy of Nuns in Rubber.”
I argue that the general public and its posterity owe a great debt to those who spend their weekends scraping rusty metal, polishing brass, learning to drive locomotives, trams, buses and cantankerous vintage cars – or making models of long-gone vehicles. If they also spend their evenings arguing over which defunct railway company had the smartest engines, or how many electric dustcarts operated in Birmingham after the last war, there are far worse ways of passing the time.
And without the “anoraks”, where would we now hear the beat of a steam train approaching, admire the sheer craftsmanship of coach-built cars, buses and trams, sail in a paddle-steamer, see in flight the aircraft that fought the Battle of Britain?
I spent an entertaining Sunday in March at the London Transport Museum Acton Depot, where they keep the trams, buses and Underground trains that won’t fit into the Covent Garden museum, along with piles of memorabilia ranging from posters to railway signals.
I was astonished at the range and variety of volunteer-built models on show – highly convincing representations of trams and Underground rolling-stock ranging in size from miniatures you could hold in your hand to models you could ride on.
You can, of course, buy kits or ready-made models if you want a train, bus or tram to put on your mantelpiece. You can even buy the kits of my fifties childhood – Bayko and Hornby Dublo. But I most admire the craftsmen (mainly, so far as I could see, men) who spend countless hours getting the detail right and making the whole thing work.
They recreate scenes and customs that vanished a couple of generations ago. One shows, for instance, how the four-track tramway layout at Dog Kennel Hill in East Dulwich operated, and why it was necessary [see http://londonmodeltramways.webs.com/dogkennelhillmodel.htm and http://www.londontramways.net/articles/dog_kennel_hill.php]. Another provides the only opportunity so far to compare the size of first-generation London trams with the vehicles of Croydon Tramlink, because there was a layout running models of both.
It’s essentially a species of entertainment, and well worth a tenner and a few hours’ time.
Future London Transport Museum Acton Depot Open Day arrangements are at http://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/museum-depot/events.