Yesterday I spent a good chunk of the day with the family at a local East Sussex attraction – the Bentley Wildfowl and Motor Museum at Halland.
It was an excellent day, that managed to swing between being highly enjoyable and also, at times, hugely amusing.
Bentley is a country estate set on a large acreage, apparently dating back 700 years.
Entering the main building gave off a distinct whiff of history, conjuring up an Upstairs Downstairs world of drawing rooms, gilt furniture, ornate ceilings and musty smells. Even the promotional leaflets looked older than Australia.
But if the interiors felt a little preserved, the exterior by contrast was alive.
Walking through the bluebell-filled woodlands was an uplifting experience, enhanced by a number of examples of ancient woodcraft dwellings, recreated to provide an idea of how people lived centuries ago.
(at least I’m assuming that was their purpose and I hadn’t inadvertently stumbled across the current staff’s living quarters).
Next a stroll through the formal gardens, all clipped hedgerows and ornamental ponds. I half expected to see Colin Firth emerging from behind one hedge, ruff collar askew and trying to ignore the chambermaid sneaking off in the opposite direction.
And then on to the wildfowl sanctuary which covers 23 acres and is supposedly the largest private collection in the UK (although I’m not quite sure who does the official counts on such matters).
Wandering around, I had no idea there were so many varieties of duck, swan and goose although one or two of them did look a little suspicious.
I’m wondering if maybe in their efforts to become crowned the UK’s number one wildfowl collection, a little sleight of hand was employed here (“I know, let’s get a few swans and paint their necks black then we can call them the rare Black-Necked Swan – no-one will ever find out” sort of thing)
Anyhow, so far, so good, but then events took an unexpectedly humorous twist as we decided to try a trip on the miniature railway, billed as another of Bentley’s selling points.
Now, by way of context I should explain that the entire railway trip would take around 5 minutes, meandering along through the estate at a pace akin to a brisk walk. Let’s say about half a mile in total?
As we approached the ‘station’, we were a little take aback to find five people all wearing official ‘Bentley railway’ flouro tops to greet us. One of them sold us our tickets and we were invited to board one of the six open air mini-carriages
Having crammed ourselves into the rather snug-fitting carriages, another of the officials advanced a couple of paces up to the train and asked to see our tickets.
Now, since there was only one other person on the entire train, it seems unlikely that a family of four would get away with sneaking on without paying, especially with 5 ‘staff’ watching them board.
Slightly bemused, we handed over our just-purchased tickets to the inspector who produced a real live ticket punch and proceded to clip them (yes, really).
Once satisfied that we were indeed bona fide passengers, the guard blew his whistle and waved his flag in a rather officious sort of way and the driver set off on his journey.
A couple of minutes later, the train stopped on the edge of the woods at what we subsequently understood to be a station. At this point, the guard left his carriage and approached us asking to see our tickets again so he could re-clip. I kid you not.
He then uttered the classic line “If you like, you can break your journey here and rejoin a later train”.
I thought he must be joking since by now we were only a few hundred yards from where we started, but no, he was deadly serious.
After a quick family conference, we decided thanks, but we’ll press on and a couple of minutes later we had arrived at our final destination – ‘Bentley Central’.
Here we encountered a veritable hive of activity with another 10 or so uniformed enthusiasts tinkering with engines, messing around in the train sheds, manning the ticket office or generally directing (all 5) newly-arrived passengers along the ‘platform’.
Now, the reason why I didn’t spend the entire trip convulsed in laughter was partly due to the beauty of the surroundings, but also partly due to the sheer earnestness with which they carried out their roles. For them, miniature railways are not a laughing matter and I didn’t have the heart to shatter that illusion.
In the past, I often wondered about the sanity of the various train spotters I used to see at Reading station, but these guys have taken their love of trains to a whole new level.
It left me unsure about whether I should pity their anorak-like behaviour, or admire their sheer enthusiasm and single-minded obsession. What do you reckon?