A P4 layout based on the South Devon Main Line of British Railways Western Region

Above: Class 45xx 2-6-2T No.4585 arrives at Littlehempston with the Dartmouth to Ashburton shuttle.

Few model railways, if any, are true representations of the prototype. Many modellers base their layouts on real locations but the moment we tighten a curve, shorten a platform or introduce a non-existent tunnel as a scenic break we are into the realms of fiction. Our fiction can extend from these simple concessions through to lines that might have been or schemes that have no location, no particular railway authority and no set period in time.

Figure 1: Ficticous map of the South Devon Railway and branches which are represented in Paul Plowman's model railway layout.

Our hobby is an art form. We are trying to create a moving 3-d image of a real or imaginary railway. My chosen scheme is a fictitious junction station on the South Devon Railway located adjacent to the village of Littlehempston with a branch down the Dart Valley to Dartmouth. The Ashburton Branch is as built between Ashburton and Staverton but between Staverton and Totnes I am imagining that the branch joins the main line on the Exeter side of Littlehempston Station (see figure 1).

Probably the most contentious issue, which we have to deal with as railway modellers is that of space. We locate our layouts either in a space we already have in our households or in purpose built accommodation. Either way we always want more than is available or more than we can afford. However, we need to pause for a moment and ask ourselves how large a layout we are realistically capable of building. The answer is influenced by two principle factors, the level of detail we propose to incorporate into our modelling and our age. Our objective should be achievable in our lifetime. We should also consider whether we might run out of steam if we take on too big a task. Building baseboards is a chore for most of us and on a big layout it might be many months before the first train can be run. On this basis it was my judgement that building a layout 4m x 7m was an achievable objective.

Construction started around 2003 in our garage in Sydney but in 2012 we made the move north to the Gold Coast Hinterland in Queensland. There was already a shed on the property measuring 6m x 12m. An area of 6m x 3m was screened off as a workshop leaving an area of 6m x 9m, which was lined and insulated for the model railway. Unfortunately the layout had already progressed to the point where it had become impracticable to make major alterations to the baseboards and it wasn't possible to fully utilise the space available. The 4m x 7m layout now resides in a room 6m x 9m.

Figure 2: Littlehempston Layout Diagram

I have adopted a traditional oval layout with hidden sidings along one side. The first challenge was to devise the scenic breaks. The first tunnel Exeter side of Littlehempston is Dainton but that is over three miles away while the first tunnel to the West is Marley. Marley is about six miles away and Totnes lies between. Then there was the question as to how would the two junctions either side of the station fit in? The junction for the Dartmouth Branch would probably have been located Exeter side of the existing Dart river bridge on the main line, nearly a mile from Littlehempston and beyond the limits of my model. While the junction for Dartmouth was a genuine “might have been” a revised scheme for the Ashburton Branch junction is total fiction. From contour mapping there is high ground between the two existing railways. To minimise gradients and earthworks the junction for Ashburton would need to be located Exeter side of the Tally Ho occupation bridge over half a mile from Littlehempston. Again this would be beyond the limits of my model.

Above: 'Resolven Grange' comes up from Totnes with a London bound express. Nine coaches would possibly be right up to the load limit for an unassisted Grange over the Devon Banks. Eventually I propose to use a King or Castle with this set of coaches to represent the 'Royal Duchy'. This was the only named train which made a stop between Exeter and Plymouth at Totnes. With the importance of my imaginary station at Littlehempston it seems justified for the 'Duchy' to make a stop here.

Having the junctions so far from the station has allowed me to omit them from the model but their implied presence means I cannot use tunnels as scenic breaks. On the Exeter side there is the Tally Ho occupation bridge half a mile away, while on the Plymouth side there is another occupation bridge about a third of a mile away. The junction signals for the Ashburton Branch would have been located before the Tally Ho Bridge and so will be included in the model while the junction signals for the Dartmouth Branch would almost certainly have been beyond that bridge towards Plymouth. However, this is where ‘art’ comes in and I propose to model the junction signals adjacent to the bridge. Although the junctions will be off stage the operator will never the less have to work the signals for the branch trains. Using bridges as scenic breaks presents an interesting modelling challenge to make the effect realistic. Tree growth and a strategically placed farm structure obscure the view of the real Tally Ho Bridge.

Above: 'Resolven Grange' pulls into Littlehempston with a London bound express.

Before embarking on the design of a track layout for Littlehempston Station I first need to establish the services, which were to be operated. I didn't need to worry about a timetable at this stage but I did need to identify the types of trains I would run and the facilities that would be needed to operate them. Firstly there are the express trains, which operated between Paddington and Plymouth, the "Cornish Riviera Express", the "Royal Duchy" and the "Mayflower". In addition there was the "Cornishman", a through express from Wolverhampton and Birmingham. None of these services stopped between Newton Abbot and Plymouth with the exception of the "Royal Duchy", which stopped at Totnes. Depending on loading some services made an additional unscheduled stop at Newton Abbot to attach a pilot loco for the steeply graded section beyond. A pilot attached at Newton Abbot would work all the way to Plymouth and vice versa. Kings or Castles usually hauled these express services. A Castle could take eight coaches unassisted over the South Devon banks while a King could take 10. Photographs of Kings with 12 coaches include a pilot. Pilot locos seem to have been anything available, Granges, Halls, Manors, Castles and even Kings. To provide for these services I have provided two hidden sidings able to take two locos plus 10 coaches. There were four down and five up stopping trains serving the seven stations between Newton Abbot and Plymouth. Due to the severe gradients Granges, Manors and Moguls worked these services. All of the stations along the line could take at least seven 54ft long coaches. If we allow for the loco standing back from the starting signals it would appear that the maximum possible length of stopping train would be six coaches. Unrebuilt Bulleid Pacifics were also used on these services to enable Southern crews to keep their route knowledge up to date for working weekend diversions when the route via Oakhampton was closed for engineering work. I have searched but cannot find photographic evidence of rebuilt Bulleid’s or other Southern classes working these services. Presumably other classes must have been used before WWII. There were also six daily services over the Ashburton Branch. Additionally there were several inter-regional services to Plymouth from places as far a field as Leeds.

Above: 'Resolven Grange' pulls into Littlehempston with a London bound express.

Operation of goods trains over this steeply graded route also presented the operators with some interesting challenges. Goods trains seem to have been limited to about 30 wagons and were hauled by a mixture of ex-GW motive power. Assistance of bankers was only provided on the rising gradients, Newton Abbot to Dainton, Totnes to Rattery and in the up direction, Plymton to Hemerdon and Totnes to Dainton. Bankers were often Class 41xx 2-6-2T’s but again anything could be used. In later times BR Class 9F 2-10-0’s were available. Smaller motive power was used for the pick-up goods. Even a Pannier tank with about 15 wagons needed banking assistance. There was a daily goods from Newton Abbot to Ashburton, reversing at Totnes. This train might also include wagons for Totnes.

Above: 'Resolven Grange' pauses at Littlehempston with a London bound express.

Above: 14xx Class 0-4-2T No.1421 working an auto train between Ashburton and Dartmouth provides a connecting service with a London bound train.

The Dartmouth Branch was a “might have been” because in 1840 an Admiralty Committee recommended to the Government that Dartmouth become the port for mail steam packet ships from the West Indies. The local MP for Dartmouth, Sir Henry Seale proposed a branch from the main line at Totnes to Dartmouth. The railway would have saved two days on the journey to London rather than staying with the ship. As it turned out the Government in its superior wisdom chose Southampton. Had they followed Admiralty advice Dartmouth could have developed as a port of some significance. The railway operations at Littlehempston therefore need to reflect a busy port down the branch at Dartmouth. There would have been at least one passenger train daily each way from Paddington carrying ocean mails and possibly one from Wolverhampton to the quay. If we extend the Ashburton Branch services to Dartmouth Town Station that would account for six stopping trains. There would have been a daily pick up goods serving intermediate stations along the branch and possibly two or more from further a field serving the port. Roughly we are talking about some 48 movements daily, excluding light engines, through Littlehempston. It looks as though I have created a busy location!

Above: 'Resolven Grange' departs from Littlehempston with a London bound express.

Above: Facing crossover at the Exeter end of Littlehempston Station.

All of the track on the layout is from Exactoscale, supplied by either the P4Track Company or C&L Finescale. Plain track is laid in scale 60ft lengths and every rail is bonded with a dropper wire connecting to a buss of 15amp cable. Fishplates are made of ABS plastic and in effect every rail joint is insulated.

The layout is controlled by DCC throughout, including points and signals using Lenz equipment. Points and signals are fully interlocked using SSI software running on a laptop computer. SSI software is available from GPPSoftware. The software enables the operator to set up routes which greatly speeds up the operation by not having to be concerned about individual points and signals. It can also be used in a fully automatic mode but I have yet to fully explore the potential of this function.

Above: Facing points with locks at the Exeter end of Littlehempston Station.

Above: Point rodding cranks leading to the platform mounted signal box.

Above: Class 45xx 2-6-2T No.4585 is about to depart with a train to Ashburton.

Above: Class 45xx 2-6-2T No.4585 departs from Littlehempston with a train to Ashburton.

Above: Class 45xx 2-6-2T No.4585 departs from Littlehempston with a train to Ashburton.

Above: SR N Class 2-6-0 No.31813 passes through Littlehempston with a diverted Southern Region service from Exeter.

Above: 'Frankton Grange' arrives at Littlehempston with a stopping service to Plymouth.

Above: 'Frankton Grange' arrives at Littlehempston with a stopping service to Plymouth.

Above: BR Class 4 2-6-4T No.80136 departs with a stopping train to Exeter.

Above: BR Class 4 2-6-4T No.80136 departs with a stopping train to Exeter.

Above: Princess Coronation Class 4-6-2 No.46232 'Duchess of Montrose' coasts into Littlehempston with a train for Plymouth.

A Duchess might be considered to be completely out of place in South Devon, especially one allocated to the Scottish Region but I had a sentimental attachment to the 'Duchess of Montrose' from the days when I owned a Hornby Dublo 3-rail model. However, Duchesses did work over the South Devon Main Line for a short time even if not 46232. Four LM pacifics were loaned to the WR for a couple of weeks in January 1956 to replace Kings with cracked bogie frames. They were:

46207 'Princess Arthur of Connaught'
46210 'Lady Patricia'
46254 'City of Stoke on Trent'
46257 'City of Salford'

They were used on both Plymouth and Wolverhampton services. The first two were the Princess Class while the second two were Duchesses. 46254 was a Stanier loco while 46257 was a later Ivatt Duchess. Both these last two have been made by Hornby although I am not sure about names. 46257 would be a certainty for Hornby at some time because the only other use for the tooling is for 46258 'Sir William Stanier FRS'.

46237 'City of Bristol' was loaned in 1955 for dynamometer trials between Paddington and Plymouth. It was most likely in 'semi' condition and in early BR blue livery at the time. So I am bending history a little, in that I am imagining that the WR borrowed 46232 instead of 46254.

Above: Princess Coronation Class 4-6-2 No.46232 'Duchess of Montrose' coasts into Littlehempston with a train for Plymouth.

Above: Princess Coronation Class 4-6-2 No.46232 'Duchess of Montrose' coasts into Littlehempston with a train for Plymouth.

Above: Current area of modelling. Tally Ho Bridge is in the far distance.

There is still a lot of work to be done before the layout is completed. Currently I am constructing the scenery between Littlehempston village and the Tally Ho occupation bridge. Ground profile formers have been installed awaiting a covering of chicken wire netting. The bases for roadways have been fixed in place and the positions of farm buildings have been determined. I have started making the masonary for a three-span bridge which can be seen in the foreground of the picture above.


Since I first started my layout around 2003 much has changed in the hobby. Asked if I would recommend P4 my answer would be a most definite "NO".

My career had been in trackwork design and P4 provided me with the opportunity to use my knowedge and experience to create a more realistic model than would otherwise be possible with 00 gauge. Easy to build point kits and flexi-track were available from Exactoscale and some easy loco conversions were possible using Ultrascale conversion packs. At the time I believe I made the right decision. However, what no one could have predicted was the coming availability of ready to run rolling stock in '0' Gauge from Heljan and Dapol at quite reasonable prices. Given the opportunity to start out afresh my choice now would undoubtably be to adopt 'O' Gauge.

Paul Plowman

31 October 2019

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