Putting it all Together

Assembling all of the aesthetically satisfactory components into a cohesive and pleasing whole is, perhaps, the most difficult task of the garden railroader. I have seen railways composed of the most beautiful and striking scratchbuilt structures and trains that simply don’t hang together, evidently because of a lack of overall vision on the part of the builder. Even though the components were superb, their arrangement in the landscape was illogical and lacking in plausibility. The railway became a showcase for the work, not a miniature, functioning world.

I have found that there are three elements that, when properly combined, make for the most successful garden lines. I call them the Three Ds: Diversions, Distance, and Detail. They are concepts that can be applied to railways of any size and shape, but this must be done artistically and with a great deal of forethought and care before the proper effect can be achieved.

A diversion is something that diverts the eye from the railway (train) itself. This is usually in the form of a visual barrier—a mountain, tall plants, rockwork—that hides part of the railway, preventing the viewer from taking in the entire scene at once. The train disappearing and reappearing behind diversions enhances the illusion of distance. Out of sight, out of mind. When the train passes from view, it could be anywhere. Even when the logical mind knows that the train is simply traveling around a small loop and will appear momentarily on the other side, the subconscious tells us something else.

When observing full-size trains, we view them from a fixed point. They appear in the distance, travel past us, and disappear in the opposite direction. While few garden lines are large enough to precisely replicate this phenomenon, diversions help.

A single diversion may do for a small railway. Larger railways may require more. Diversions can also be used as curtains to conceal a changing scene or to suggest a new, different locale.

Distance—actual distance—can be used to heighten the sense of traveling a long way, which may sound obvious. With skill, whatever distance you have can be enhanced to seem greater. One way of doing this is by minimizing zone-1 plantings near the track between settlements, allowing zone-2 plantings to encroach. By emphasizing the distinction between habitation and wilderness, the distances between civilized areas will seem greater.

Another way to very simply enhance distance is by running trains at prototypical speeds. Many of our railways replicate small, rural railroads from decades ago. Top speed on these lines was often no more than 25 or 30 miles per hour and, typically, only 10 to 15 miles per hour. You may be surprised to find out how slow that really is when scaled down.

Vertical elevation in the track, subtle changes in the direction of the track, and changes in elevation of the surrounding landscape will add interest to a scene, which also helps the illusion of distance. Be careful, though. More is not better. Subtlety and restraint is the secret here.

Detail refers to the more developed, civilized areas of the railway. Contrast is what this is all about; the difference between well-tended civilization and neglected wilderness; order vs. chaos; man vs. the elements. If the illusion of a town or settlement can be successfully created in two or more places on the line, or even in one place on a small line, and these towns are separated by significant stretches of wild area, a person following a train will have a sense of having been somewhere upon arrival at the final destination.

As mentioned in earlier chapters, these developed areas need not be large or involved, nor must they be highly detailed. They do need to be logical and well thought out, though, and convincingly suggest human presence. If they are built in areas of varying terrain, this will aid them in taking on characters of their own, which in turn will help them develop a sense of place.

How often have you glanced through a magazine, come across a station scene (for instance), and known immediately where and whose it was? This is because the sense of place had been firmly established. The structure, associated town, and entire garden railway had its own distinctly pervasive identity. These things were not achieved over the space of a weekend. They were constructed, deconstructed, and constructed again. They were finely tuned over a span of years, after countless hours of minute scrutiny, removing all that was wrong, enhancing the right. It is the care and nurturing that makes these tiny places what they are. Over the course of a great deal of time, these railways’ owners have given great chunks of themselves to their creations in the same way that an artist gives a large part of himself to his art. The railway becomes both an expression and a reflection of the selves that created it. This is why plastic, commercially made, and quickly built garden railways can never truly have lives of their own. Take your time. Don’t hurry. You’ll get there.

It is the creation of a miniature place, a place to which we belong, to which we feel we’ve been before, and to which we look forward to someday returning, that we all strive for. Whether or not we attain this elusive goal is immaterial. It is the striving for it that makes us better, more complete people, more one with ourselves and with those around us. Though achievement may or may not be an attainable destination, it is the journey that counts. Though the objective may be hazy and distant, it is the path we must tread to get there that enriches our lives and fulfills our souls.

* The end *


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