Wimborne in miniature
Wimborne’s Model Town was built more than sixty years ago. It has been through many changes but is now one of the town’s most popular tourist attractions. Colin Trueman visited it.
Published in July ’15
What is a ‘small business’? In Australia, it is one with fewer than 15 employees; in the European Union, the number is 50; and in the United States a small business is one with fewer than 500 employees. Wimborne has a ‘small business’ of a very particular kind, where the smallness is more to do with the size of the buildings rather than the amount of workers. In the south-east corner of the town centre, next to the field where the town’s cricketers now play, is another Wimborne – this one being a tenth of the size of the real one. This is not a model village, like Bekonscot or Merrivale: this is Wimborne Model Town, a 1:10 recreation of the town centre as it was in the 1950s.
The history of this miniature Wimborne only came to light in the last decade. A hoard of newspaper cuttings discovered in an old suitcase revealed that the idea for it came in those golden years of post-war euphoria when VE day was fresh in the memory, Compton and Edrich couldn’t stop scoring runs and families went on charabanc outings to enjoy the endless summers. Four gentlemen of Wimborne went on one such excursion in the summer of 1948 to Bourton-on-the-Water, a picturesque Gloucestershire spot known as ‘the Venice of the Cotswolds’ because of the many bridges over the River Windrush as it flows through the village. It was not the Venetian connection which impressed the quartet of Wimburnians, though: they marvelled at the 1:9 scale model of the village which was situated behind the intriguingly named Old New Inn. So accurate was it that it contained a model of the model village, and even that model contained a model of the model of the model… The four men, seeing its potential as a tourist attraction and noting its similarity to La Serenissima (Venice) by virtue of its own river, the Allen, decided to build their own model version of their home town.
On their return, they photographed and measured all the buildings and shop fronts in the centre of Wimborne and prepared detailed plans. They decided to use a similar scale to the Bourton-on-the-Water model, in no way deterred by the fact that Wimborne had many larger buildings, notably the twin-towered Minster. An area of a third of an acre just off the Cornmarket was acquired as a site for the project – not a particularly large space, but it had the virtue of laying down strict parameters: the modellers knew exactly which buildings they could include. The leader of the project by now was Charles Coffen, and it is he who is usually given the credit for bringing this extraordinary dream into reality.
Local craftsmen were called in to make the buildings, using specially cast concrete panels for the basic structures and beech wood for the window frames. In the end, there were over three hundred models, with more than a thousand windows. Wimborne Model Town finally opened in 1951. Work had not actually finished for the first full season in 1952, and indeed the Minster, which needed 22 tons of concrete, was not completed until 1954. But, as had been hoped, it soon became a very popular tourist venue. The records show that by 1959 80,000 people had visited it, some from as far away as South Africa and Australia. Part of the attraction was that visitors could walk through the model rather than view it from afar, and the lack of ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ signs and other warning notices contributed to the friendly atmosphere.
But by the mid 1970s, the original owners had retired and the business subsequently changed hands several times. Moreover, a rival attraction had arrived in Dorset: Tucktonia opened in 1976, offering not just a model town but a model landscape covering four acres which included 1:24 scale versions of Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s and other iconic buildings from London and the rest of Britain. In addition, Tucktonia offered theme-park-style rides, bumper boats and a 7¼-inch narrow gauge railway which could take passengers – 77,000 of them in 1983 alone. Wimborne Model Town could not possibly compete with this. Moreover, increasing costs meant that less maintenance was done, and the attraction fell into something of a decline. It became a haunt for vandals; fires were started. Eventually the site was bought by a property developer, who, once he had been given permission to build, gave Wimborne twelve months to rescue its model town before the bulldozers came.
Wimborne’s community spirit came to the fore and a tranche of volunteers stepped forward. This time, however, it was not so easy to find a site, so it was decided to dismantle all the buildings and store them until a new site became available. This was a much harder task than it sounds. The original models had never been meant to be taken apart, and some damage was unavoidable. The concrete slabs were all carefully numbered – with all the walls and roofs, there were two thousand of them – and stored in the corner of a large grazing field owned by the Hanham family.
The band of volunteers formed themselves into a registered charity overseen by a board of trustees, and eventually Sir Michael Hanham came to the rescue and donated the land to them as a gift. For the next six years, they went about the business of re-erecting the models, and they also had to seek planning permission, as the field was in an area of green belt. It was decided to make no additions to the original scheme, even though more space was available, which explains why such well-known Wimborne landmarks as the Tivoli and the old Grammar School are missing. The one major change was the dressing of the shop windows, which had all been blank in 1951; now each shop has its display of one-tenth scale items, sometimes with assistants and shoppers – but everything is set meticulously in the 1950s. The new model town was opened in 1991 by Roy Castle.
Since then, it has gone from strength to strength. Nowadays the miniature phone box rings, the tiny public conveniences flush and you can hear organ music playing at the model Minster. And the Model Town now has further attractions to entice the 21st-century visitor. The newest of these is the Sensory Garden, which has been created in a formerly under-utilised part of the site. In keeping with the tactile-friendly ethos, the garden has grasses which can be felt and, in the wind, heard, and there are many strong-smelling plants, so there are pleasures for ears, fingers and noses. The water features and the wind chimes add to the aural soundscape; the giant wooden Storytelling Chair, with its gnarls and knots, is a particular delight for the visually-impaired.
The miniaturism of the Town itself is now echoed by a model railway, recently re-housed in a smart new building and complete with very 21st-century digital technology which controls six interactive tracks. The layout, constructed and maintained by a devoted team of volunteers, is in a nostalgic setting of no particular place or period: Chettle House is there, yes, but so are Batman and Robin, side by side with Del-Boy’s yellow Reliant Robin. One of the steam engines is, inevitably, Thomas, so the Fat Controller is on the station platform and Harold the Helicopter hovers over the scene. The Railway Room is a paradise for children even in their nineties.
The latest miniature additions were a gift from Beryl Dade, known to many Dorset residents as ‘the dolls’ house lady’. Over the last 25 years she had been collecting dolls’ houses and refurbishing them with inmates and furniture. By 2014 she had a dozen of them in her living room, which rendered the ‘living’ part somewhat nominal; so she offered them to the Model Town. Greg Hoar, the General Manager, went to see them and was delighted to see that they were all at a scale of 1:12 (close to that of the Model Town) and all immaculately finished. He took up the offer, and they now occupy the building next to the Tea Room and Gift Shop. ‘There are thirteen and a half of them – the “half” is a gypsy caravan,’ says Greg. ‘They all have stories provided by Beryl. For example, in one of the bigger houses a wedding is going on, and in another there is a whole family of teddy bears. Visitors of all ages spend ages peering into all the rooms.’
Greg pays tribute to the team of more than 80 volunteers who help to run the attraction during the summer and to maintain it during the winter. ‘And for me, it’s a privilege to keep it going during my time here, after all the people before who have worked so hard to make sure it was here for future generations. We are forever grateful to the Hanham family for their generosity, and next year we’ll be able to celebrate our 25th year on the site they provided
for us.’ ◗