‘Swan Lake’ and the ‘Black Pad’

OK, so how many of you are modellers? ‘Not me,’ perhaps, but, then, don’t just skip the thought and move on. This isn’t a specialist field.


In the pursuit of oral history interviews for the Great Central Oral History project (see previous posts) I was recommended to meet the Shipley Model Railway Society. It seemed a rather unusual suggestion for oral history but I was curious. So, in March 2017, I found myself in a large old industrial building in Shipley, surrounded by all the materials of the railway modeller’s art, discussing a model of ‘Leicester South’ with four modellers - two Johns, Barry and Andrew. Not being a modeller myself, I found it fascinating.


Leicester South, a mere 30 feet by 13 feet in an oval shape, depicts the layout of lines and surrounds south of Leicester Central station. There’s no specific date for this, except that it covers roughly the period 1948-63, the better to give licence to recreate different aspects of the scene. Research was thorough and meticulous. Books and newspapers were investigated, old photos, notebooks, films, visits to the site long after the railway had been swept away and the area converted into blocks of student flats. So it became possible to get exactly the right number of insulators on the telegraph poles, the correct number of rungs on signal ladders, even the milk stains at the loading dock for the Kirby and West dairy nearby. We looked at trains on the running lines and shunting, we looked at the allotments, and the pond known as ‘Swan Lake’. And we looked at the ‘Black Pad’, known to all Leicester spotters in those days. The Black Pad was a cinder lane running behind the back yards of terraced houses, parallel with the running lines and separated from them by a stout wooden fence (or, in later years, not so stout). My notes and the recordings cover in much greater detail the features the modellers included and the learning they got from it all.

Picture: Disused Leicester Central Station. Martin Carr-Harding

I listened in to visitor comments. One remembered who lived where in some of the terraced houses depicted, another thought some of the locomotives must have been before his time, another remembered the pig sties at the end of the Black Pad whose occupants were an interesting culinary side line for men at the nearby MPD. Gerry and Beryl laughed when they saw the Black Pad. ‘Well, sometimes on a Saturday we would take our girl friends down to do some spotting on Black Pad,’ said Gerry with a chuckle. ‘Thing is, though, if you snogged her she had to have her back to the fence so you could look over her shoulder and spot the number of the loco passing.’ ‘I was that girl,’ said Beryl enthusiastically. ‘But I liked spotting too – so long as it didn’t get too much. Wow, it’s just like yesterday,’ she added watching the model.

Picture: National Railway Museum


And indeed, it was. The recreation of Leicester at a point in time triggered memories, not only of railways but the whole story of that part of Leicester at that time and, through that, something of the life style and the culture as it then was. Memories came flooding back, ‘just like yesterday’.


It’s an interesting thought, that models can do this for onlookers. There’s something in the act of making something, a model, but then making memories too. So the next time you stand and watch the trains going up and down on the NRM’s own layout, just stop and listen to the nearby conversations. You might discover more than you bargained for!


If you want to get a better idea of the Leicester South model, Andy Bennett has filmed it on Youtube.


‘Polyphemus’


By John Swanwick.


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