In a far-off distant land called Kent, there’s a building where the childhood of small boys of the 1960s is preserved and cherished, and on a very soggy Monday in our August holidays, I made a long-awaited pilgrimage to worship at the shrine. This holiest of holies is the Hornby factory on the outskirts of Margate, which now houses a visitor centre celebrating the history and heritage not only of Hornby railways, but also of Corgi, Airfix and Scalextric – all iconic brands of my youth, all of which have sailed close to oblivion, and all of which have come together under the umbrella of a single company that, even taking off the rose-coloured glasses of boyish optimism, seems to be doing pretty well.
My visit – although one I’d been looking for an opportunity to make for ages – wasn’t without a certain amount of trepidation. When you’re pitching an attraction dealing with four brands like this, there’s a serious danger of swinging to one or other extreme of the market scale. I’d have been hugely disappointed if everything had been oriented to today’s young purchasers and their parents, with no recognition of the big chunk of 20th Century cultural heritage that comes with any one of those names; but I’d also have been rather uncomfortable if the visitors centre had focussed entirely on past glories and aimed only at middle-aged men who still feel put-out at being forced to grow up (that’ll be me, then). That would have been tantamount to a statement that all of these classic toys were irrelevant to today’s youngsters, and solely the province of an already dwindling band of MidCentury kids.
I’m delighted to report that the whole place balances the extremes nicely. For every one of the brands, there’s sound coverage of the history, with cabinets dedicated to the product lines of successive decades and articulate signage explaining the history. In every case, it’s salutory to reflect how the output was debased in the 1980s as the individual companies struggled to maintain market share and each seemed to dumb down in an attempt to chase ‘play value’. The renaissance of the 21st Century (which in Airfix’s case followed a near terminal sale to a French company, almost putting paid to the company’s extensive archive and hence much of the exhibition) has brought a massive leap in the quality of the products of all four brands which means that collecting nowadays is genuinely for the ephemeral value of the products rather than, as a decade or so back, the only way to acquire models of certain items, however poorly rendered.
There are, of course, railway layouts to display the Hornby lines, though I would have enjoyed a ‘retro’ layout using only 1950s/60s products for comparison, and a basic Scalextric track for proto F1 drivers to try out their skills (the current generation of cars seem to spend much more time actually on the track than mine ever did). I was also pleased to see some high quality dioramas of Airfix models, including one of their range of 1/32nd scale cars (some of which are very rare items) and their 1/12th scale figure range (even more so). Sadly, the HO/OO figure range wasn’t so well represented (maybe they couldn’t find an employee with the patience to paint all those little faces the way we used to many years ago), but the compensation was a huge airfield diorama to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, featuring massed Staffeln of Messerschmidts, Heinkels and Dorniers attacking a beleaguered RAF station (nearby RAF Manston, perhaps).
Sadly, taking advantage of the global market and moving manufacturing to China has also meant an end to production at the Margate site and the company is in the process of moving distribution to a new location which will presumably sever the last link between one of these iconic brand names and its original location (the others parted company with their former factory sites long ago at the nadir of their troubles). The visitor centre itself is moving into the heart of the regenerated Ramsgate seafront, which will make it much more accessible to family visitors, but I’m rather glad I managed to make it in time to tip my hat to the site of so many boyhood Christmas wish lists.
We managed to stay firmly in adolescence with a lunch that avoided any of our five a day at Morelli’s Ice Cream parlour in nearby Broadstairs. Morelli’s has been trading in the area since 1907 and the parlour itself was opened in 1932. It owes its current decor to an expansion and refit in 1959, which makes it a classic of its kind, both inside and out and right down to the ice cream cone shaped door handles. The concoctions on offer are spot on, too, ranging from simple single scoops of their delicious Italian ice cream, through increasingly ornate constructions served in beautiful twisted glass dishes. One day I’ll get to visit when it’s a) Summer and b) not raining, but at least a trip there makes warm Summer days feel that little bit closer.
You can find all the latest news on the Hornby visitor centre, including its forthcoming move, at their website and Facebook page. Morelli’s have their own website and Facebook page, too.
Oh – and if you didn’t get the reference in the title, check out your Twilight Zone episodes…