Coastguard Creek - Always design for the space available!

Last blog entry, I shared a generous serving of the hundreds of sketches that I've drawn for Coastguard Creek. There will be a few more here, but this time I'd like to focus on how important it can be when layout planning to stop sketching and think logically for a moment! Let me explain...

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...after months of relatively fruitless sketching, on New Years Eve I took a step back and remembered my mantra (which came about after numerous failed projects) of 
'design for the space you have, not the space you want'. That restriction really helped with focusing my ideas, as per CC12, but even that didn't last long! It wasn't long before I went back to getting carried away with sketches of layouts that were too large (as documented last entry).

Fast forward to now, June 2022, and recent visits to exhibitions (in particular the RMweb Members Day) inspired me to find whatever time I could scrounge to work on ideas for Coastguard Creek. Taking Sandy Shores to two exhibitions made me realise, yet again, that I should remain realistic about what I can achieve given my situation in terms of storage and transportation - and base any plans around that! We'll come to the specifics of that in a bit, but before diving into designing, I thought it important to learn from past mistakes...

...the problems with my past layouts

Looking at the original plan for Coastguard Creek with fresh eyes brought up some now-obvious problems. Aside from wanting more from the layout, I realised that it has the exact same problems as most of my past layouts (Sandy Shores included); firstly, the station/halt is almost immediately after the scenic exit, and secondly, the sidings do not have associated industries.

Three problems from the original plan

Above: In an effort to squeeze everything onto one board, too many compromises were made in the original plan. Note how, just like Sandy Shores, any passenger train at the halt would block off potential freight operations - so a passenger train would have to arrive and depart before the freight could come. In the real world, such a branch would probably be one-engine-in-steam anyway, but on a model railway that's an incredibly boring way to operate a layout!

Stations/passenger traffic

Having a station right after the train joins the scenic section means that running passenger trains is very boring - almost pointless. My placement of stations has mostly been determined by the shortness of my layouts, and the need to have long headshunts to be able to back freight into sidings; that naturally means the station gets pushed close to the scenic exit to make enough room. To be fair, passenger trains don't interest me nearly as much as freight (I had only one old Bachmann carriage in OO gauge, until a recent purchase where it will be replaced by one newer Hornby offering!), but if there's a platform (and there will be - I love halts), it might as well be seen and used.

Sandy Shores' platform is way too close to the scenic exit

AboveSandy Shores' halt is far too close to the scenic exit, and thanks to the loco shed, can be hard to see. Running passenger trains is almost pointless, and indeed I rarely run them!


So, if freight is thus the main operational point of my layouts, why then do I always end up with generic sidings that result in completely random shuffling of wagons? Even on Sandy Shores, there is no industry associated with either siding. Taking a step back, I realised that this was a problem with my original plan for Coastguard Creek - none of the sidings have a particular use, although I suppose you could say that the boatyard does have its own siding; albeit on the hidden track inside the building!

Above: A particularly cruel image of Calshot MKII at the Brockenhurst exhibition in 2010! Aside from the lack of backscene in this shot (although to be fair this was taken from the fiddle yard), it's the lack of any shunting purpose that I'm trying to draw attention to here. None of the wagons have loads, and none of the sidings really serve any industry or pupose. The only thing useful in terms of freight facilities is the very short loading platform just visible at the back left.


As shown above, one of my biggest concerns is actually what to do with backscenes. I prefer tall, one piece backscenes - which is why whenever I exhibit Sandy Shores I go to the extreme effort of re-attaching the backscene with Blue Tac to its (single hardboard) board. It's a very inconvenient set-up, and not very neat along the edges, but I just can't see a way around it - because I need to keep the paper backscene safe, so it must be removed and put into its tube for storage/transportation. Failure to do this has, in the past, resulted in small rips or tears. A PVC vinyl backscene (like you'd find with outside banners) would be more durable, but it would be too shiny, and hard to hang perfectly. Ideally, I'd be able to fasten the paper backscene with adhesive-backed magnetic strips. I did consider this for Sandy Shores, but I just don't think there is enough clearance, and I'm not sure if that would result in visible horizontal banding from the front.

The backscene must also surround the scene in such a way that from most angles it would fill the frame (as looking at the scene through a camera). Old AGWI Rd was an awesome design in terms of a layout theme and shape, but impossible to fit a backscene to; not least because it wouldn't be visible from many angles!

Above: Old AGWI Rd. was a classic example of forgetting about the importance of backscenes. No matter how you set-up a backscene, it would never be able to be seen in every normal viewing point - one of the 'wings' (the far one - a jetty board) would've been left without one, with the backscene only on the near edge of the closest boards. This means views of the jetty would likely look pretty bad on camera!

Making the layout too big!

Above: My biggest fail in my model railway past was The Old Road. An exciting layout, with a fair amount of potential, but look at the bloody size of it! Don't laugh, but it took me until setting it up outside to realise that I had nowhere to set up more than two boards at a time inside. Whilst I did build a few buildings, the boards remained in my tiny shed, and never again worked on. When the shed needed to be demolished, the boards went with it; the softwood battens re-used for Old AGWI Rd, until that also met it's demise (again, because it was too big to set-up in the house)! See a recurring theme here?!

The only layouts that I've built that have been a 'success' are layouts with only one board; with any later extensions always causing the layouts eventual demise. That says to me that I should build a small layout that will be fun to operate and include everything I would like from the outset, and that should never need to be extended. 

Operational lessons learnt from recent shows

I enjoy building scenery more than operating, but as I like to exhibit my layouts there's got to be a balance somewhere. I've also recently heard from quite a few people how much they enjoy having a layout permanently (and conveniently) set-up at home to shunt wagons for an hour or so every now and then - that sounds like a great idea to me! Looking at my current plans, and how they would be run (should they be built), has made me look at things a little differently. As mentioned earlier, this has become particularly obvious having exhibited Sandy Shores recently at both Narrow Gauge South, and the SSWRS show in Wilton.

1) Something should always be moving

On a basic level, I found that if nothing moves on the layout within 20 seconds or so, a good number of people will just move on. That said, with Sandy Shores at SSWRS, I did become more proficient at swapping locos from the shed to mitigate the downtime whilst preparing the next train in the fiddle yard.

Manual uncoupling is apparently interesting to watch!

Above: Whilst Sandy Shores does have uncoupling magnets, they have not proved successful.

Something surprising to me, however, was that despite there being only two sidings, people seemed to really enjoy watching me shunt wagons. Especially, much to my surprise, the intricacies of uncoupling wagons by hand. All of this has upped both my interest in operating, and my desire to reduce downtime/increase shunting maneouvres. OK, so some people commented on 'the hand of god', but the vast majority of people actually preferred the interactivity of me manually uncoupling. You'll never please everyone!

2) Fiddle yards should be convenient and quick to use

It has also made me realise that fiddle yards/off-stage areas must be easy to use - the faff of lining up Sandy Shores' turntable by hand/sight is a problem not just in terms of time wasted, but also the frequent derailments resulting from inaccurate alignment:

Derailments are fairly common on Sandy Shores due to having to line the turntable up by eye!

I also ran into problems with not having quite enough space; the folding stock tray beneath is too far to be useful for it's intended purpose (although it's great for holding cups of tea and cake), and I found that I kept knocking the wagons off the turntable tracks due to both the narrow clearance between the tracks, and the lightweight nature of the wagons (the latter of which was mostly dealt with by adding 'Liquid Gravity' from Deluxe Materials). Swapping wagons to make up different trains is also somewhat fiddly.

3) Shunt like you mean it!

Despite having no real sequence of shunting on Sandy Shores, I have learnt that one way to alleviate boredom is to set a train up in the fiddleyard that has a random mix of wagons in a random order, bring them onto the scenic side, and then try to shunt those wagons into the two sidings so that they are in a more uniform order. I suppose the next step up would be a card system (as per Michael Campbell's Loctern Quay). As a further step up from that, Coastguard Creek will feature more obvious industries, and associated sidings; therefore hopefully providing opportunities for more intentional freight movements (and potentially quite challenging ones)! Something I also realised is that I don't have a brake van on Sandy Shores - another aspect which will also add a small level of complexity to operations. To be fair, I did consider this in later plans for Coastguard Creek; thus including a short siding from the run-around loop(s) to hold a brake van.

4) Know the limits of one-man operation

Perhaps the biggest lesson I've taken away (which I should've done many years ago considering I've been exhibiting my layouts now for over 10 years!) is that an exhibition (or exhibitable) layout should be designed to be run by the number of people you expect to have with you at shows. In my case, just me! As I'm always solo, it also means that, should I be fortunate (it's happened once) to have someone operate my layout for an hour so, that it should be easy for them; even if they have little experience. When you've exhibited solo for so long, you forget the quirks that your layout has! This either has to be written down and explained to the new operator, or needs to be designed out/retroactively fixed.

Spending a lot of time to design a layout that can fit into a small car, and be assembled without tools was time wisely spent!

Above: Sandy Shores was designed from the outset to fit in my little car. OK, so it's not very neat, but it does work! The great thing about this layout is that you don't need a single tool to assemble/disassemble it.

The limits of one-man operation also extend to operational complexity, and also the size of the layout and ease of assembly/disassembly. I think I struck a good balance with Sandy Shores (especially because it requires no tools to put together), but in terms of any new layouts, this always has to be a major factor in their design. There's no use building a layout with more than one scenic section, or more than one fiddle yard as I'll only be able to operate one at a time! Similarly, if the layout is too big, I won't be able to see what's going on at the other end.

5) Interactivity with the public

Whilst at the SSWRS show, a layout across from me had what I can only describe as 'vibrating chickens' in a farm yard; the kids (and grown ups) loved it! It made me think that although I put a lot of thought into little cameos, I've never taken the initiative to make them more of a focus for visitors. I don't just mean in terms of animations, but also making lists for visitors to try and encourage them to look for the details. I know this has proved very popular on other layouts, but I don't know why I hadn't considered it before!

A second thing I would love to try is, as I just hinted at, animations. Though I'm thinking less about quirky things like vibrating chickens, and more about more... practical applications. Back at the RMweb SWAG do, I was fortunate enough to operate the exquisite Bridport Town. Aside from the fact that I can't remember the last time I operated someone elses layout, what struck me was the added interest that the working signals and level crossing gates added. Not only was it fun, but it also added operational complexity! Something I'm dying to add on Coastguard Creek is a working swing bridge (as well as perhaps working crossing gates and semaphore signals). I'd also love to model a working travelling steam crane, but I think that is far beyond my skill level!

Above: Bridport Town - Dave Taylor's masterpiece! The crossing gate is activated by a switch, which opens the four gates in turn. Until the crossing is open to rail traffic, the fiddle yard (out of shot to the left) is not electrically powered. Of course, this doesn't mean you can't cause havoc on the scenic side, but it's a neat safety feature, and thankfully I did manage to avoid any gate incidents when operating it at the SWAG do. As mentioned, all the signals also work; providing a really fun aspect to the operation (assuming you remember to change and reset them!).

Something I would also like to explore further are removable wagon loads. All the flat wagons on Sandy Shores have removable loads, but these are only swapped out in the fiddle yard; so wagons arrive to the scenic side full, and leave full. This doesn't make sense in a real-world scenario, so if possible, I'd like to have some way of emptying wagons before they reach the fiddle yard on the new layout. The easiest way would be to have one siding going into a building, where the loads can be removed behind-the-scenes, and the empties shunted back out to another siding, and eventually to the fiddle yard for refilling. A more complex example would involve unloading and loading on the scenic side via a crane, overhead gantry, conveyor, hopper, tipper, or any other method. As a man of little mechanical experience, that would be a challenge, but captivating to the audience if pulled off effectively.

Back to basics...

With those lessons learnt, and with new ideas to think about, let's set some ground rules; as well as noting any restrictions that will come into play.


Perhaps the biggest restriction is that my current car is very small! Assuming I won't be upgrading any time soon (and also assuming I won't be able to use my Dad's van), I shall have to design whatever is to be exhibited to fit in the limited space available in my current car. An add-on fiddle yard would be acceptable provided it is not too deep, but I doubt there is room for a second scenic board; especially given my penchant for tall backscenes. Here's why:

The absolute maximum size I can fit in my car is a 1.4m x 0.9m board (tapering to 0.6m on one end) - assuming that it's overall height is no more than 0.4m. The height restrictions (as shown on the left hand sketch) are in place because the rear of the car obviously slopes - thus the taller/higher-up a board is, the shorter it has to be. In order to fit (stack) a second board, board length would probably have to be reduced to 1.2m (assuming they can be stacked to be no taller than 0.6m - which is unlikely unless I make the backscene removable). The boot 'lip'/seal intrudes on the overall width - bringing it down from 1m to a maximum of 0.9m as shown. To further complicate things, due to curves, there is only a 0.7m long flat section at the bottom, so the boards would need to be lifted by 15cm on top of the 15cm of the lip itself to fit the full 0.9m width - thus a fake floor would likely be beneficial, unless there are boxes that the layout can be stacked on top of.

I have always exhibited on my own - aside from the usual problems this brings, it also means that I am in charge of operating the entire layout, including the fiddle yard. Thus the latter should be simple and quick to use and marshal trains. As I prefer tall backscenes, this also means that I need to be able to see the entire layout from one spot (at the front or side), and that operation should be flexible enough, as it is with Sandy Shores, to allow multiple trains to be operated on one board via the use of well-placed isolating sections. In some previous designs, I had a fiddle yard sandwiched between two scenic modules. This looked great in principle, until I realised that I could only operate one module at a time!

The breakthrough?  A layout of two 'halves'...

With more and more scenic ideas, I completely rethought how the layout would be set up. At a basic level, there were four ways to approach this layout:

  1. As a portable single board layout (as per the original plan)
  2. As a portable multi-board layout (like most exhibition layouts)
  3. As a series of small/micro portable independent (i.e with their own frame/backscene) but connectable modules
  4. As a semi-permanent home layout, with an additional module (or two) to take to exhibitions
No. 1 is obviously the most convenient because it is a self-contained unit, but it would be impossible to fit every scene in that I have in mind; especially given the size limitation of my tiny car!

No. 2 is the more standard approach to layout building, but does require increased wiring and joins in the backscene. There is a danger that this would also result in a layout too large to exhibit alone, and too large to fit in my car.

No. 3 solves the backscene problem from No. 2, but will create others; most notably that each module would probably need its own control panel or flying leads, and it would also be hard to operate such connected modules by one person because you can only see one module at a time. That also means that only one module will have something happening on it at a time.

No. 4 is probably a good half-way house between all the options - it seems like the best of both worlds, with the only problem being that I will likely only ever be able to share the home portion through the medium of photos/video, and not at exhibitions.

Looking at all the sketches proves that there are just too many inspirational locations to fit them on a layout that will be able to be exhibited by one person (i.e. me!). No. 4 therefore looks like the most suitable option, and thanks to a tidy up of my studio in August, an entire shelf could be cleared; creating the opportunity for a small cameo layout/module to fit in the space, which would thus also become...

...the exhibition layout

Whilst a lot of the scenes would lend themselves to becoming a micro layout in their own right (as shown with the 3-module idea, (CC12)), it's the boatyard that stood out for me as being the most suitable candidate; especially given the amount of shunting potential and variety in wagon loads. For now at least, I have given this the name 'Brambles Boatyard' - after the name of a treacherous sandbar in the Solent. (Until this very moment, I got confused with the Shambles, which is a sand and shingle bank near the Isle of Portland - so I have since corrected and renamed this layout - although the sketches below still show the wrong name!) Ahem, anyway... the Brambles Bank has caught out many a ship; from small vessels, to colossal modern ships. More fascinating though is that a cricket match is held on it once a year at low tide! I was fortunate enough to witness this in 2016 on my day trip to the IoW Steam Railway:

A group of brave souls playing cricket in the middle of the Solent on the Bramble bank sandbar at low tide!

Above: A group of brave souls playing cricket in the middle of the Solent on the Bramble bank sandbar at low tide! A most bewildering and amusing sight, I must admit. I don't think you could find anything more British if you tried! And no, I won't be modelling it.

 Anyway, sorry, I got a little side-tracked there. Here's the shelf in question...

Above: The shelf is approximately 98cm long, 48cm deep, and 40cm tall. This is an early mock-up from quite a while ago; using old buildings from Calshot MKII, The Old Road, and Old AGWI Rd (now that all those layouts, alas, have been broken up). It does however prove that the shelf is big enough to fit a self-contained layout on, although, a bit of extra length would be helpful to enable a proper headshunt, so...

Above: (CC18) By, quite literally, thinking 'outside the box', we can both expand the scenic and operating potential. Needless to say, this is just a freehand sketch, so it's likely to be wildly optimistic, but it does show developments of the earlier mock up. The general scene I'd like to aim for includes; a large half-relief boat shed, a lean-to loco shed for the Ruston 48DS (or alternatively, a siding disappearing into a shed), a winch shed with slipway, a small boat 'high and dry' being worked on, a store/yard office, a half-sunken barge, a small brick gatehouse, and possibly a derrick crane. Note that angling the exit track (compared to the mock-up) means that I can add a fiddle stick/headshunt and actually operate the layout in its home, and thus without having to move it. That said, a cassette system or compact sector plate would be more useful.

Either way, a tiny extension sticking out would also make the most of the 1.2m/4ft limit length that my car stipulates, and being at an angle, would allow for a significantly longer headshunt than would otherwise be possible. Remember, I also have 1m/3.2ft to play with in terms of width in the car; that's over twice the shelf width! Thus, whilst the scheme on the right (with it's passing loop and rear access to the boat shed track) probably won't fit in the space, a cleverly-planned extension designed from the outset might make it feasible at exhibitions. The hard bit would be the backscene (perhaps one for home, and one for exhibitions?).

The home layout...

The home portion of the layout would still be split up into two or three boards (whilst I've never moved house in all my 29 years on this planet, not planning ahead would just be tempting fate). Whilst I'd love to exhibit it, I think it would realistically be too big; likely requiring a small van to transport it (again, I'm not ruling it out). For now, I've called it Leape, which was an old spelling of Lepe - I wanted there to be some separation between prototype and semi-fictional model. It is, after all, an amalgamation of most of the ideas that have been drawn up in the past year, and the various prototypes that inspired them. I will preface these plans by saying these are very much first drafts/ideas - but it should help give the general gist!

Above: (CC19) Using the same boatyard module, we can see how it might integrate into a semi-permanent home layout in the bedroom. Again, freehand sketch; so this will be far too optimistic, I suspect! Note that I also played around with adding a third section 'Buckler's Timber Yard' - inspired by Eling Wharf. The above plans are the only ones I've drawn up for the home layout idea, as this has been a recent development - in reality, I expect this to change quite drastically.

With so many ideas and plans (more than I've ever drawn for any layout by far!), it's now time to sit down and actually work out what it is I want from the home layout. So, in no particular order, Leape now has to:
  • Have at least one rail-served industry to marshal freight to properly, preferably more if possible.
  • Be a 'line in a landscape' with plenty of opportunities for typical country scenes/cameos.
  • Have recognisable New Forest features (cattle grid, ford, mill pond etc)
  • Avoid extreme compression to the extent that it hinders operation
  • Avoid trying to cram too much into a space - let the scene 'breathe' instead
  • Have at least one bridge (I'd love a working swing bridge to add some further interest, although if I can fit it into the exhibition layout that would be best!)
  • Have a sweeping trackplan and avoid elements parallel to the baseboard edge
  • Make the scenery dictate the baseboard shapes, whilst remaining in sensible/manageable sizes

Thoughts for further development

Mock ups
Needless to say, both layouts will require proper mock-ups done before I can even begin any formal plans! At the moment, I will likely focus on planning for the boatyard layout, which I'm sure will evolve further. Part of this will be assessing if there really is enough room to sit the layout on the studio shelf or not, and how big I can get away with it being!

You may be wondering about the original name, Coastguard Creek. I still like this name, but I think I'd consider this as the umbrella name for both the home coastal layout, Leape, and the creek-based boatyard layout, ShBramble's Boatyard. I think doing otherwise would cause confusion; not least because the boatyard will be designed so that I can join it onto the home layout, should I wish.

New logos for Coastguard Creek, Brambles Boatyard and Leape

Above: The new logos for the three sections, with the 'umbrella' name of Coastguard Creek at the top, and the two layouts below. Can you tell that I've been in a logo designing mood this week?!

Two-phase plan?
One bonus of approaching this project in two parts is that I can build the smaller Bramble's Boatyard first, and then decide later on if I still want to proceed with the much bigger Leape (or should that be a much bigger leap!). At present, I love the scenes that Leape will feature (particularly the tidal mill), but I worry that not being able to take it to exhibitions will make my interest wane - after all, it would be located in my bedroom (I only go in there to sleep!), and I will already have Bramble's Boatyard to operate within my studio at any time I please. Back in my teenage years I had an L-shaped layout in bedroom, but I didn't run it nearly as much as I should've. I'm a little concerned the same will happen with Leape, but I suppose it might be a good excuse to step away from the computer/studio and have a little relaxation time to operate the layout in an evening.

End-to-end or round and round?
As far as the home layout goes, on one hand, I like the freedom and realism that an end-to-end layout brings. On the other, I really would like somewhere that I can just run a train around and not always have to keep an eye on it; I haven't had such a layout since my very first one when I was still in primary school, and my scenery consisted of an unpainted papier mache tunnel and large rocks from the garden!

I did consider having a test track on two circular 'boards' with one OO gauge line and one OO9. Non-scenic; just a plank of wood with track on it that was perhaps hinged in the middle OR would be split into smaller arcs. The idea behind the arcs would be that I can turn the boatyard into a roundy-roundy via attachable thin boards. I might actually still consider that, as a roundy-roundy takes up a lot of space, especially in a bedroom environment - and it also requires tight curves.

Home layout
One thing I'm a little concerned by plan (CC19) is that there is very little scope for operation with the home layout as it stands - it almost feels like a wasted opportunity - especially without the shipyard layout attached. I also feel like the layouts, however many sections there are, should be joined directly, rather than using the fiddle yard as a break. I sense that it would be more fun to show the actual junction of the creek branch/spur, rather than assume it off-stage - basically have it more like (CC17) - which is my favourite plan to date. Speaking of which, with that plan I would obviously have to swap the boatyard scene for the timber yard as I would already have the boatyard as the self-contained Bramble's Boatyard! Whatever the case, I'm in no rush to plan the home layout - the focus for now will be on the boatyard.

Latest sketch
Speaking of which, here's the latest version of the boatyard layout, again, drawn freehand so take it with a pinch of compromise...

The most recent design for Brambles Boatyard

Above: (CC20) ...this latest sketch of Bramble's Boatyard, now that I look at it, has the exact same trackplan as Sandy Shores! In reality, another siding would be beneficial, but I'll wait until I can do some mock-ups to see what I can fit in the available space. I'm sure there will be many more variants to come - a small swing bridge extension for added interest at exhibitions would be great, but would contradict my liking for a low tide scene!

So that's it for this blog entry. I'd love to know what you think about any points that I've raised, and the sketches shown. Do you find it hard to dedicate time to running your home layout? How many of you have actually ever moved onto a 'Phase 2' layout/module that was larger in scope? I'm happy to hear any of your thoughts - they will be much appreciated!

Next time: Potential alternate history of the area/railway, research into New Forest industries, and further prototype inspiration.

Thanks for reading; please do post any comments or questions down below! I post fairly frequently on my Twitter page @StudioJamming which often includes sneak peaks of my modelmaking projects for BRM and any photographs I take. It's the best way to find out what I'm up to, as well as seeing some of my modelmaking tips and what goes on behind-the-scenes!