September 30, 2020

Coronavirus: ‘People couldn’t wait for our model village to reopen’

Brian Newman-Smith

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced certain businesses in England could reopen, there was some surprise that model villages appeared on a list alongside places like pubs, restaurants and hairdressers. BBC News went to Buckinghamshire to find out more about this very British fascination.

Bekonscot pub beer garden

It proudly states it’s “stuck in a 1930s time warp” and portrays England “how it used to be”.

This is Bekonscot, the oldest model village in the UK, which has attracted 15 million visitors to a tiny corner of Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire for more than 90 years.

Here, the miniature residents enjoy the wholesome pursuits of cricket and bowling, going to church, taking tea in the garden and ploughing the fields, without a care in the world.

Bekonscot hospital scene

After months of lockdown it is perhaps comforting to visit a little world tucked away from everyday life, not least against the ravages of a global pandemic.

“They couldn’t wait for it to be open,” said owner Brian Newman-Smith, who lives on site.

“What we’ve got here is fantastic – when you approach there are high hedges, then suddenly you see the entire village in front of you. It has the wow factor.”

Bekonscot sign and lighthouse
Stephanie Butters with Ellie and Lottie

About half a dozen families were queuing just before 10:00 BST for the first day of reopening, having booked tickets online to ensure Bekonscot can limit visitors to 100 per hour.

First in line was nanny Stephanie Butters who had travelled 40 minutes from west London to give Ellie and Lottie’s parents the space to home-school their siblings.

“I’ve been many times,” she said. “It’s something fun to do after lockdown.

“There’s a little park near them in Chiswick, we’ve been going there to feed the ducks. We’re getting a bit fed up feeding ducks now.”

Bekonscot shop

When the prime minister made his widely-anticipated lockdown-loosening statement in the House of Commons on 23 June, the reopening of pubs, restaurants and hairdressers came as little surprise.

The news that museums and galleries could also unlock their doors did not seem particularly unusual.

But also in that list of businesses and visitor attractions was, very specifically, model villages – a rather niche and eccentric curiosity, of which there are just a handful in the UK.

Bekonscot boating lake

Miniature village fans were overjoyed but others were bemused, with one woman tweeting that her fiancee had only learnt of them because of lockdown easing and had asked “but why, why do they exist?”

“I honestly don’t have an answer for her,” she said.

Robert Peston, ITV’s political editor remarked: “Live theatre – banned. Compulsory five-to-18 education in schools – banned. Trips to model villages – very much back on,” while comedian Justin Moorehouse quipped: “I’m not prepared to visit a model village until I’ve had my nails done, thanks for nothing Boris.”

Bekonscot cricket

But for historian Tim Dunn, who worked at Bekonscot and describes himself as “probably the world’s only model village expert”, the appeal is obvious.

He tweeted about his enduring love for model villages, even at the age of “39-and-a-bit”.

“Model villages are about joy – they’re about the suspension of reality,” he wrote in a blog post.

“People go to them to escape for a bit, to reminisce, or forget.

“They’re full of silly things, they’re full of joyful things, they’re full of things that we wish for. They bring out the child in us – because suddenly the world isn’t such a scary place full of responsibilities after all.”

Bekonscot garden scene

Everywhere you turn, Bekonscot’s tiny residents are enjoying an impossibly pleasant and carefree village life in 1:12 scale – relaxing on a boating lake or drinking in a beer garden, with no concerns for face masks, hand-sanitiser or social distancing.

The miniature railway weaves through the rolling landscape, the village doctor and nurse assess a patient without the need for PPE and there is no queue outside Chris P Lettis, the greengrocers.

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But for its Gulliver-sized visitors, there are new signs about keeping safely apart. The tea shop can only offer takeaways, picnicking is not allowed and the site has become fully contactless.

Bekonscot railway

After months being kept from public view, Bekonscot was in need of a bit of care and attention, with its dainty shrubs and manicured lawns growing wild since March.

“The model makers and the gardeners were furloughed, the grass grew long because we’ve been closed all these weeks,” said Mr Newman-Smith.

“The team have done a fantastic job, it looks great.”

Bekonscot circus
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