Bekonscot Model Village, tucked in its own landscape of hills and dales, is more English than England itself. It is 40,000 square feet of idealised Britain: Thirties rural England through rose-tinted glasses, nostalgically preserved, and no apologies required.
This is croquet-lawn England, untainted by poverty or the threat of war, where bread was thickly spread with butter, golfers wore plus-fours, the local bobby dealt with crime over a nice pot of tea, and women scrubbed their doorsteps with a smile.
Bekonscot in Beaconsfield, south Buckinghamshire, is the oldest model village in the world. Since it opened to the public in 1929, nearly 12 million visitors have passed through its gates. Last year, a shadow fell upon the tiny microcosm with the opening of Legoland in nearby Windsor. But although visitors were down by l6,000 on the previous year's figures (1996; 216,194: 1995; 232,000) the management at Bekonscot does not feel threatened.
"I think a lot of people went to Legoland last year because it was new," says Barry Newman, a spokesman for Bekonscot. "We were about 2,000 schoolchildren down, but we hope to recoup that number this year. We are unique in that we're totally committed to the Thirties. We're not suddenly going to introduce white-knuckle rides to compete with the theme parks. We have a different sort of charm, which we're sure will stand the test of time."
Bekonscot has courted change before, in an attempt to give the village a more modern look, but it's not a mistake they intend to repeat. In the Seventies, a model of Concorde was installed on the tiny airfield which is home to an historical collection of old aviation stock. But the peaked nose that is testimony to modern technology barely lasted a decade; in the Eighties it was quietly removed so that the village could concentrate on maintaining the authenticity of the Thirties.
Scene changes at Bekonscot are regular events, however, and life in the village never stands still. One of the latest additions to the miniature world is a scaled-down replica of Enid Blyton's Beaconsfield house, Green Hedges, where she lived for 30 years. Blyton herself has yet to be installed, although there are plans to create an illuminated room within the house featuring the wordsmith at her typewriter.
For 70p you can buy a copy of The Enchanted Village, a short story that she wrote about Bekonscot. It isn't, though, Blyton at her best: Bekonscot is a village "made for fairyfolk", she says, which clearly it isn't. However, it is home to Canon Ball, the rector, Miss A Stitch, the dressmaker, Ivan Huven, the baker, Dan D Lyon, the florist, and hundreds of other aptly named people who catch the gauge-one Bekonscot trains each day and ride the tram at the seaside.
Sue Holmes from Berkshire and her two children, Sophie, 10, and Oliver, seven, spent the day as giants in the miniature world of Bekonscot.
Sue: I never cease to be enthralled by Bekonscot. We've been there as a family several times, and each time I see something different. It's lovely to watch the children getting down among the houses and buildings, but there is so much to appreciate as an adult as well. Bekonscot is really a little piece of history. It depicts a way of life that is almost foreign to us now, and it's good for the children to be able to wander round and ask questions about what they see.
The great thing about the village is that it doesn't pander to children. It is there for them, but it invites them to use their imaginations and look and listen rather than to become physically involved. It is wonderful to see how respectful children are of the buildings and people, especially as they now live in a world where hands-on experiences are very much the norm.
The atmosphere of the Thirties almost rubs off on you - this is a very relaxing day out. It's so refreshing to go somewhere that doesn't involve fast rides and stress, and where it is safe enough to let the children wander round by themselves.
Sophie: Bekonscot is a really pretty village but a lot of it is quite funny, too. The shops and buildings have got really amusing names which are a play on words, such as IC Weeds, the gardener - that was one of my favourites. It's quite frustrating not being able to get right up close to a lot of the buildings but you get a really good view of everything. It's very well laid out. I particularly liked the scene where the thatched roof of a cottage had caught fire: there was a lot of action there.
You really need to stop and peer round corners to appreciate everything. You have to listen carefully to hear the music in the tiny church and in the market square where the Morris Men are dancing. It's nice to see how life was in the old days.
Oliver: I liked the trains best, and the funfair. I spent quite a lot of time trying to follow the trains from one station to the other. It's fun trying to keep up with them. The funfair is very old-fashioned but it looks much more exciting than the fairs we go to today. It's great to try to pretend you are actually living in the village. There's so much going on: farms, zoos, hospitals, Scout camps and a working coal mine. There are quite a few moving models which I enjoyed watching, but it's fun just looking at the people in the village and imagining them walking around like ordinary people. I'd love to see what it is like there at night-time.
Location: Bekonscot Model Village is in Beaconsfield, south Bucks (01494 672919). By car take junction 2 from the M40, follow the A355 and A40 to model village. By rail to Beaconsfield station.
Admission: adults pounds 3.20, children pounds l.60, concessions pounds 2.20, family ticket pounds 9 for two adults plus two children.
Opening times: 15 February-2 November, 10am-5pm, gates close at 5.45pm.
Facilities: two picnic areas, one with an adventure playground, the second inside a large, conservatory-type building with picnic benches for wet weather. There is also a storage area for picnics. Refreshment kiosk for hot and cold snacks, plus a souvenir shop. Toilets.
Access: paths are wide enough for single buggies and wheelchairs but not for double buggies. A few wheelchairs are available to borrow. No pets, only guide dogs allowed.
When you've finished with the tiny delights of Beckonscot, head off to the Inn On The Green (01628 482638), at Cookham Dean. The bar menu here includes steak in a baguette with chips and sausage and mash, warm goats' cheese salad, and monkfish with peppers and sherry. There's a large, walled courtyard barbecue area, and an acre of paddock behind the car park. It's a wonderful summer pub for families with youngsters: the rear, grassed area has picnic tables, a tree house, a "Nut House", a slide, a climbing frame and rubber tyre swings. Open 12pm-3pm, 6pm- 11pm (Sun 12pm-3pm, 7pm-10.30pm).
From Egon Ronay's Guide
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