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Magic plastic and tiny trains

Even as a small boy, I already possessed that coveted talisman of middle age known as the National Trust life membership card. My father being a Yorkshireman, and reasoning quite sensibly that if you’re going to wring real value out of a life membership then you should get it at the beginning of your life rather than two thirds of the way through.

These days, of course, I have the beard, the tweed jacket and the maroon Volvo estate to go with the card, and on Saturday my old mate D and I used it to get into Ormesby Hall, just near Middlesborough. I realise I risk open mockery by saying that it was a lovely and educational afternoon out, but it was, and above all it was genuinely interesting.

Unlike some properties that are pimped and polished to their gilded rafters, Ormesby was more or less the way the family who bequeathed it had left it, and it felt lived in, in a pleasant, atmospheric sort of way. Little plastic toys that looked like they’d come out of Christmas crackers still sat on the desks next to antique letter openers; reading books were stacked on mantelpieces in the bedrooms, and newspaper cuttings from the local paper were pasted on the inside of the wooden door to Colonel Pennyman’s filing cabinet. Watercolours painted by family members decorated the guest bedrooms, pairs of boots sat by the fireplace, and the attic was full of posters for theatrical productions designed by the colonel’s wife, Ruth. You could imagine it being a happy sort of house.

I’m always impressed by the volunteers in these places, standing around good-humouredly in the rooms and introducing them to each new batch of folk who wander in. D reckoned it might get a bit embarassing if you didn’t know every last detail of the family history and people kept asking you questions you hadn’t got the answers to, but if it were me, I’d just make something good up. In fact, who’s to say these room guides weren’t? One girl was telling us a great story about the mistress of the house and her lefty leanings (‘They used to call her “Red Ruth”‘), and she’s probably sniggering about it in the pub now, chuckling into her wineglass as she tells the other volunteers about the tall tale she spun for that pair of gay blokes in their 40s the other day.

Up in the servant’s quarters there were several rooms full of painstakingly created and maintained model railways. The marriage of stately home and model railway geekery always seems a peculiar one to me, but you see it so often that it must seem a good match to someone. These displays were also staffed by a cheery group of volunteers (all of whom appeared to be having a wonderful time flicking switches and turning knobs and stuff), though where as the people downstairs covered a surprisingly wide cross-section of ages, the train set boys were mainly of a more predictable demographic. Little trains whooshed past tiny wheatsheaves and thumb-sized platforms, while jocular notices on the wall warned of the dangers of model train addiction.

On my way out, I spotted a recruitment poster, and I’ve been wondering about signing up. After all, if a bearded, tweed-jacketed Volvo driver with a National Trust life membership card has any rightful place in life, it is at the controls of a model railway layout.

Apart from anything else, I’m curious about the fringe benefits.

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