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Mike Leppan's Garden Railway

Originally posted: Friday, 28 May 2010

Many thanks to Mike Leppan for sharing his Garden Railway story.

The more I become involved in this fantastic hobby, the more people I meet who feel the same way! For many years I felt that I was the only one in SA who had a passion for running trains out in the garden! The second problem was the cost of buying imported equipment as I felt I was being ripped off in this country when it came to the cost of stuff. Being an importer made me realize the costs involved in bringing in large quantities of heavy equipment - especially when the risk was now all in my court as to the sale of what I had ordered. I ended up sitting with about R100K worth of trains I could not sell because my likes were not someone else's! And the market was too small to really support the import of larger stocks. Anyway.. LGB went out of business before we managed to really get a foothold in the door. It has now become a large collector market!

I started about 40 years ago with the vision of running trains outdoors. My HO Lima and Hornby ran outdoors - not that it lasted long... track rusted and the boards I used buckled... because I did not really know how to do it properly. There were no good magazines or clubs who knew much about it in SA at that time, at an age of 6 or 7 I did not know much better. Then I received an old second hand copy of a Continental Modeller or the like, and in it was an article written by a Brit--- I still have his letter and photos of an outdoor line running clockwork trains from the 1920s. That was the start of a long journey to get to where I am now.

They say every journey of a 1000 miles starts with the first step. I just believed that one day I would own a Garden Railway! I continued to dabble in the HO and then N scales in my late teens and then the hobby lost it's sparkle - and I became involved in other things. It was not until my own son was born some ten years later that the old interest in trains re emerged. I dug out my extensive collection of N scale stuff, but his small fingers and clumsy handling forced me to put it away and rethink the larger scales. It was at about this time that again fate played a hand and I found while looking through an old magazine an article on LGB. That was me re-hooked! I managed to buy up a small LGB collection that was offered for sale in the Cape Ads and soon I had a start to what is now a HUGE collection that has taken me 15 years to accumulate. I realized that the LGB product was extremely well made, beautifully engineered and EXACTLY what I had always dreamt about running thru my garden. I immediately laid a few experimental tracks outside, and it looked fantastic, - a small L shaped layout running thru an area of my garden that I took special care of to make sure that it was everything in miniature. I had a tunnel, a few beautiful cuttings, overhung with baby breath and small conifers. It looked fantastic and the small trains ( Small 0-4-0 Tender locos and 4 wheel wagons and passenger cars) looked FANTASTIC running in this miniature wonderland. Better than anything could ever look running on planks. The track was laid into REAL ballast and tamped down so well I could walk on it. Power was a standard Transformer providing 24 V to a small LGB trackside throttle --- a far cry from the complex MTS system that I now use. I continued to collect and made contact with Anne Aumer who was the LGB Export Director. LGB supplied me a lot of spare parts and we eventually built a great friendship between various of there employees. I still remain in contact with Wolfgang Richter - the original creator of LGB. Late in 2005, Anne Aumer asked me if I would be prepared to distribute and promote LGB in SA. I jumped at the chance - and soon we had LGB product in toy shops around Cape Town, shows on a regular basis... but we found that the trains although very popular at shows etc with everyone... were always more than what most wanted to spend. The hobby was dying down in many areas and many people just could not afford the outlay. It was restricted to serious collectors and people who decided to start a new hobby. LGB went bankrupt about a year later and that was that.. we decided to call it a day and I went back to my full time business. (We ran this part-time)

My current railway is a large oval, built over the past 5 years, and still lots to do. I can run trains around the whole oval, I am not into shunting or running prototype... it just gives me a trill to see a long goods or a beautifully lit passenger running around the line. I am working on small sections at a time so as to keep the interest high and to enable me to super detail each area as I work. Temp track covers about 40% of the line, this is lifted when I work an area, but can be re-laid very quickly to get things going again! The rest of the track is laid on permanent way and is reballasted every spring - rain and birds seem to remove it... It is so easy to spend a morning in the sunshine with a bucket of ballast and a small trowel - repairing and checking everything. Moss grows between a lot of the back loop of the line as does small groundcovers. I have also planted a number of beautiful Bonsai around the line, for some this is the third season outdoors. Two of them are 22 year old specimens... They are absolutely stunning. The line has taught me many skills... I have included a few photos of the line as it progressed and as it is now. The indoor photos are of our show layout at the Hobby X in Jhb. The ASTER/LGB NGG13 Garrat was a Present from LGB - just weeks before they closed their doors for the sales I had brought in. The scratch built stuff is some items that Jan Gous helped me with for a show!