It's A Small But Beautiful World At Pendon Museum

By Nicola Tann | 15 February 2006
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A bus driving over a bridge in the countryside

A GWR Bus. Courtesy of Pendon Museum Trust

Nicola Tann takes a look at the specialist world of miniatures at Pendon Museum in Oxfordshire where a collaborative project, lasting over fifty years, has produced three breathtaking exhibits.

“If the beauty of the past must be lost, it could still be held captive in miniature. If people should forget, here is a way to remind them.” Roye England, Founder of Pendon Museum

Scenes of rolling countryside and villages, cottages and railways have been frozen in time at Pendon Museum. They have been painstakingly recaptured in exquisitely detailed miniature models. Some scenes roll over galleries of more than seventy feet.

A train driving past a signal

A tank engine in the Dartmoor scene. Courtesy of Pendon Museum Trust.

Pendon Museum has always attracted a particular crowd – namely the model railway enthusiasts. But the Doll’s House Weekend, February 18-19 2006, hopes to pull in new audiences by showing that the world of miniatures can have a wider appeal.

“We are using it to appeal to those interested in doll’s houses and other types of miniatures, but also to bring in more family groups,” says Malcolm Smith, Development Coordinator at Pendon. “We do have many different family groups coming in and that is something that we really enjoy."

“It’s great when we have grandparents bringing their grandchildren. It seems to prompt conversations about childhood and life in general – the way things were and the way they are now. We provide a way for different generations to tell their stories.”

A row of thatched cottages

Canney Row Cottages. Courtesy of Pendon Museum Trust.

There are three main scenes at Pendon – the Vale scene, the Dartmoor scene and the Madder Valley – all of them ambitious projects of outstanding detail and research. In the Vale project visitors can already see a large part of the village, complete in all details.

Plans have been drawn up for the whole Vale scene, and work is well advanced on building the railway. If they’re lucky, visitors can sometimes see the modellers at work.

A black and white photograph of supporters of Pendon Museum from 1963

Pendon's early supporters in 1963. From left, Paul Austell, Guy Williams, Jim Arnold. Seated Paul King. Courtesy Pendon Museum Trust.

The feeling of ‘captured time’ provides the magic of this venue. Archive photographs taken in the 1950s and 60s show men who are still involved in the running of the museum now. Guy Williams and Paul King (see photograph above) are still involved with work at the museum. These photographs also show parts of some scenes being installed decades ago - which can still be seen in the museum today.

As a museum so fanatically involved with the preservation and care of something so traditionally English, it may perhaps seem strange that it was founded by an Australian.

Roye England came to England in 1924 from his hometown of Perth to patent a control system he had developed for model railways. Unfortunately he got nowhere with his designs but ended up living in Oxfordshire and falling in love with the area known, poetically, as the Vale of the White Horse.

Roye England with the Dartmoor scene in 1956

The late Roye England at the controls of the Dartmoor scene in 1956. Courtesy Pendon Museum Trust.

“He was something of an artist,” Malcolm tells me, “and the story goes that he saw the thatch roof being taken off a beautiful old cottage to be replaced by asbestos. He realized that everything was changing and he was desperate to somehow preserve the beauty of the time.”

And this was the beginning of a labour of love that would outlast the man himself. Having gone back to Australia, he returned to England after the war, bought an old pub, and ran it as a youth hostel. This business venture was to provide the capital for his real passion – he was going to recreate the whole of the Vale of the White Horse in miniature.

“He said that he thought it might take as long as twenty years,” said Malcolm Smith. “That turned out to be a very optimistic estimate. We’re still working on it now - fifty years later.”

A row of thatched cottages

Courtesy of Pendon Museum Trust.

Having founded Pendon Museum in 1954, Roye England died in 1995 aged 88. Since his death the modellers and staff at Pendon have been continuing his legacy in this breathtaking example of detail, discipline, artistry and scale.

New figures, all made individually and with “a particular character” have been developed. “We wanted to get away from the standard ‘china doll’ figures,” says Malcolm. These include charming characters like ‘the bird watcher’ and ‘the butterfly catcher’.

A train driving over a timber viaduct

A timber viaduct in the Dartmoor scene. Courtesy of Pendon Museum Trust.

Unbelievably, a new contender for the title ‘smallest miniature’ at Pendon has emerged to beat the famous robin redbreast into second place – a butterfly can now be seen perching on a cabbage in the Vale scene.

With the scenes modelled to the scale of 1:76, (normal scales for human figures are around 1:12), creating a butterfly is no mean feat.

“It all started as a joke,” Malcolm tells me. “We were at an exhibition and someone laughed and said that we should make a butterfly to sit on the cabbages. I started thinking about the possibilities. I ended up modelling him from a slip of cigarette paper. We joke now that it’s a shame you can’t see the caterpillars…”

A train at the Pendon Parve train station

Pendon Parva Station. Courtesy of Pendon Museum Trust.

It’s impossible to ignore the passion of the men for this mammoth project which they are still realising. It would seem that without this passion, their achievements would have never been possible.

The feeling of stepping back, of walking into frozen time, and the decades of work to create it, make this venue very special. Roye England would no doubt be proud of it today.

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Nicola Tann is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer for Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

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