getting the layout to look 'right'

Most of us build model railways which represent a certain area. It could be a line in the depths of Black Rock Canyon, in Colorado,  'somewhere on the West Coast of Scotland' or a line in the Hartz Mountains. What we need to ensure is that our layout really does evoke the atmosphere of its supposed location.

When you are creating the scenery for a model railway, you have to consider EVERY aspect of it colours, patterns, textures, the position and relationship of buildings and structures to their surroundings, etc. OBSERVE everything you see the colour and patterns of tarmac, the structure of hedges, types of fencing and gates, brick walls, details of buildings, telegraph poles, street lamps, pillar boxes, types of roofing, TV aerials, the colour of the grass and crops in the fields, outbuildings, road works, building sites, gardens, car parks, pot holes, drains, windows, guttering.....

So let's look at some of the factors that will help to make our layout look authentic.

latitude, altitude, temperature and humidity

Colours and light will differ dramatically depending upon the latitude and altitude of the area to be portrayed. Those who are used to living in Northern latitudes often will regard the lighting and colours of say, the Caribbean seas, rather unnatural. The Caribbean is an area of high humidity however so distant objects lose clarity.

Australia and parts of the USA also have terrains of quite lurid colours. In addition, low or zero humidity may be normal so distant objects will have great clarity and often appear much closer than they are.

As we climb higher and higher the sky also becomes a deeper blue. The photo below was taken at 9000ft during the aspen fall and looks to the average European like something that was brewed  up in Photoshop! Average temperatures and humidity will also dictate the type of vegetation in the area.

All in all, such places are a far cry from Oldham!

If you are unfamiliar with the landscape, your model will almost certainly be unconvincing. At the very least visit and take as many photos as you can. If you are not modelling a subject in your local area, your next best bet is to model a place that you have visited often, say while on vacation.


The world has changed in so many ways over the years. Without doubt, it is far easier to model an era that you are familiar with. I model the 1930s but because of the War, little had changed by the 1950s, a time I well remember. Early epoch modelling will require a considerable amount of research. Fortunately, the internet is a wonderful tool for this.

Architecture, street fittings, vehicles, clothing and even farming methods have changed so it is really important to get it right.

topography and geology

A region is first and foremost defined by its topography and geology. In general terms, the older the rocks (in geological terms), the softer the landscape. Snowdon mountain was once higher than Everest, amazingly and the remaining hills are for the most part rather rounded and the valleys smoothed by glaciers. Anglesey is even older, geologically speaking and is therefore much smoother and lower.

The geology will also play a big role in the type of vegetation one will find. Some plants love chalk while others prefer more acid soils. Remember, layers of rock may get folded and show at all angles. The type of underlying rock will also weather very differently.

If you are able to obtain aerial photographs of your chosen area, you will get a far better understanding how the landscape fits together. Almost certainly, you will find a volunteer for this exercise at your local flying club. Google Earth can be veryhelpful.


The vegetation of an area will be a significant factor in making it distinctive. From the Nevada desert to the Black Mountains, each area is special. Make sure that you are familiar with the ecology of the area you are modelling. Even in town, you may find plane trees or other species which are typical to a particular urban scenario.



Local architecture will define your chosen location. Everything from which building materials are used to the style will be a signature for the area.

Stone is not locally available in Norfolk but flints are readily found

a Cotswold town

Denver brownstone

St Elmo Colorado

Southern French village

Even street furniture is typical of an area. Of course, railway architecture is quite specific to the operating company. Advertising signs are also special for an era and region.


The countryside is in many places, itself 'industrial'. Farming practices have changed our landscape beyond recognition. As time has moved on, fields have become larger and crops have changed. A modern farmyard is actually an industrial complex in its own right. Some areas are infested with hedges; (personally I hate them as one can never see the landscape around you). Wales specialises in dry stone walls which are there just to tear your car to pieces while France and much of the USA has open vistas thanks to wire fences.

There are even big regional differences in how the soil is tilled. For instance, ploughing is still commonplace in Herefordshire while on the Lincolnshire fens, the soil is disturbed as little as possible.

Livestock used to be more specific to an area than it is now. Suffolk Punch sheep (just about the dumbest beasts on the planet) would be farmed in East Anglia on flat fields, Welsh Black cattle in Wales, etc.


Whether horse drawn or motorised, vehicles are always specific to a region and epoch.

late 19th century

late 19th century

early 20th century






Clothing has changed more than almost anything else. In earlier times, the clothing was much more class related than it is now. In Britain, a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum is well worth while.


So there you have it. I feel it is quite pointless to ensure that your trains are correct in every detail unless you are also prepared to invest an equal amount of research into the layout around it. I admit that this is just my approach to modelling. Whether it is the correct TV aerials to be found in the 60s or which cars were commonplace, your hobby can offer you hours of fascinating research. By doing so, you will elevate your trainset to a museum standard diorama.