When the nasty Nineties bring trouble to toy-town

Times are tough at a model village caught in a time warp.
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The Independent Culture
IT'S MIDWEEK in Ramsgate at the height of a wash-out summer season. It's very, very quiet. A few stray people and dogs promenade the tarmac, ignoring the grey-blue Channel backdrop, while a child kicks a football against an undercover beach shelter.

Despite the Sally ferrying passengers to and from Ostend, despite the pensioners enjoying a snippet of holiday nostalgia and despite the hardy day trippers, this stretch of Kent coastline is, like many British resorts, on its downers.

Like other once thriving seaside towns, Ramsgate has suffered at the hands of one-size-fits-all, fun-in-the-sun holidays. But unlike other coastline spots it hasn't yet been given the regeneration overhaul. You know the sort of thing. Some bright spark in the local council decides that the best way to encourage tourists is by going all-American. They then grant planning permission for a flashing light, blaring sound amusement arcade; a super-duper aquarium; and a spanking new McDonald's on the seafront. No, Ramsgate is far more traditional and although there's no denying it's on a downer, you can still glimpse past glory days.

Nowhere more so than Ken Wake's Model Village. Ken knows a thing or two about the bad times. He's had his roofs kicked in, his windows smashed, his boat chucked over the side of a cliff and his favourite Grecian obelisk shattered into a thousand pieces. Kids and, bizarrely, middle-aged men, have been vandalising his back garden with such regularity it's a wonder Ken hasn't just given up on his little corner of old England.

Set high on Ramsgate's cliffs, away from the town centre, Ken's Model Village stands as testament to a time when our seasides were glorious and we all wanted to visit them. It opened in 1953 to a post-war populace enthralled at the intricate wonders of miniature, capitalising on the vogue for Meccano sets and Airfix models which any self-respecting boy demanded for his birthday. It was also a time when towns like Ramsgate were booming again with holidaymakers wanting to shrug off the austerity of the war years.

"We've got pictures of a solid snake of people going round the Model Village," says Ken. "It was one of the first in the country and no-one had seen anything like it."

Built in his garden by Ken's wife's grandfather, Charles Harrison, the village became a big tourist attraction and was, says Ken proudly, "twice visited by royalty" in the early years. "People were amazed," he says. "Some would stay in the garden for hours. Everything was made by hand from carving the figures to constructing the buildings."

Today, though, things are different. The village is now in something of a time warp perfectly capturing a post-war vision of golden England. And like Ramsgate it has seen better times. "On a good day," says Ken, "we could get 200 or so people through the door but if the weather is bad there might only be 10."

The parallels between Ramsgate and its clifftop Model Village are clear. Both are weathered and teeter on the edge of an appealing decline: miniature roof tiles are cloaked in green-yellow moss while ivy has found its way into some of the dwarfish domains. And both places are plagued by the mindless vandals.

"A lot of stuff has been destroyed over the years We've had nearly pounds 5,000 of damage in the past few months alone," says Ken, towering over a weenie graveyard. "We used to have a ghost model and two children playing but someone wrenched them out of the ground. I've only got the foot of one of the kids now."

Although there's still an innocence hanging in the air of the village, it is tempered by real life in the 1990s. Ken has hired a security guard to patrol at night and will soon be installing close-circuit television to keep a 24-hour watch on the little cobbled streets. "We seem to be a microcosm for what is going in the wider world. We are the place where reality has waded in and destroyed the innocence of make believe."

This is true, but only to a point. The Model Village is now historic make believe and also offers a slightly surreal view of England seen through a 1950s sensibility.

Nestled in the landscape are idealised tableaux of life before the war. There's a cricket pavilion on a village green, where a dozen or so frozen figures are interrupted by a rather well-endowed miniature streaker being chased by a flustered copper protecting public morals with a well-positioned sweep of his helmet.

Then there's a Tudor shopping parade, whose windows are filled with 1930s- style town and country regalia and fishermen's quay where wizened, wooden figurines mend nets, while nearby housewives hang carved bloomers on the line to dry.

"It's not based on a real place," says Ken walking past the village hospital complete with its own wooden ambulance, operating theatre, patients in striped pyjamas and pink waffle blankets. "It's meant to be a memorial to a golden age."

Some of the teeny tourist sights are marvellous, some slightly bizarre. There's the Seaton Grange school boys in green and yellow uniform playing in an Eton-style courtyard; there's viscount Trowte in his country squire outfit; and even the manufactured relics of a Cistercian abbey with its own waterfall.

And there's some charming, old-style humour. Look out for Gown, Gown and Gonn auctioneers, the Jewish GP, Dr Issi Livin, and the original water otter in the old-fashioned zoo. If you gently turn a grey handle a big yellow stove kettle is wheeled out.

Seen through the rose-tinted spectacles of a 1950s craftsman it is all so quintessentially English. And it is part of our seaside heritage, just one step on from the turn-of-the-century freak show. "I don't want to update the village because it perfectly shows a 1950s take on things," says Ken. "When some people visit they really appreciate it as a window to the past, others, particularly the Germans, just zip round in ten minutes and don't really get it.

"But it is the vandals that are the most hurtful because they are destroying something that is irreplaceable." Parts of Ramsgate may be a bit ropy, but Ken's splash of new technology could maintain the Model Village as a tribute to the seaside's halcyon days.

For more details call the Model Village on 01843 592543. Open Easter to October. Entrance pounds 2 adults, pounds 1 children.