Robyn Gallagher

Adventures in words and web

Napier 2: Inside the trainroom

The last time I visited Napier, I wondered if someone’s great-grandpops had make a Faustian pact – a devastating earthquake in exchange for turning the swampy land surrounding the growing city into habitable suburbs, and the opportunity to rebuild the town centre to meet the needs of a modern, expanding population.

Maurice notes that after the earthquake, “Napier gained 3200 ha of new ground in earthquake, which gave new suburbs such as Marewa (‘raised from the sea’).”

Marewa prides itself on being Napier’s “art deco suburb”, to the point where even non-art-deco buildings are being decofied to fit the script.

An electrical substation, built in 1951 in a plain New Zealand government style, has had some triangles and deco-themed edging glued on to the building, along with trompe l’oeil painted stonework. Somewhere, someone approves of this and thinks it raises the character of Marewa.

Genuine faux deco

It’s worth nothing that none of the three editions of the Shell Guide mention Marewa’s or Napier’s art deco character. Back then, the style was only 30 to 40 years old and it would be another couple of decades before art deco became fashionable again. When Maurice visited, the art deco buildings were probably just seen as slightly shabby, naff old buildings.

Because Marewa was “raised from the sea”, it has a slightly swampy feel to it. The suburb is bisected by long drainage ditches, which no one seems to have tried to disguise as streams. Or art deco streams.

Maurice has one specific Marewa recommendation: the “superb Kennedy Park Rose Gardens”.

Kennedy Park is mostly occupied by a campground, but the eastern edge of the park is home to the rose garden. It opened in 1951, but didn’t make it into the first edition of the Shell. But by 1976, Maurice had visited it and it must have made quite an impression for him to call it “superb” (compare with the “interesting” cathedral).

I’m not sure I feel the same. Well, yes, they were nice enough rose gardens, and there were still plenty of blooms, looking vibrant in the bright autumn sun. But there are better rose gardens in New Zealand.

I grew up with the Hamilton rose garden, and there is the Parnell rose garden in Auckland and the Lady Norwood rose garden in Wellington. Not to mention Te Awamutu the [alleged, so-called] rose town of New Zealand.

But then maybe things were different back in the ’70s. Perhaps Maurice visited on a sunny November morning and enjoyed the roses in full bloom. And perhaps he enjoyed some sandwiches on the lawn, watching the sparrows splash about in the fountain. Perhaps, after long days on the road researching the book, it was a welcome break in a tranquil little corner of New Zealand. That really would have been superb.

Splish splash

In the same sentence as his rose gardens recommendation, Maurice also puts in a word for the “Lilliput village and model railway”. I was intrigued by this, and didn’t even know if it still existed. So I turned to my semi-broken iPhone and googled it hard.

From what I could find out, the Lilliput model railway story goes like this – it was first housed in a building at the Hawke’s Bay Museum, before being evicted in 1988 when the museum needed more space. It then moved to Marineland, but was again kicked out in 2008 when Marineland needed more space. I discovered its new home was a place called Trainworld, conveniently located in central Napier, and apparently not in need of more space.

I was a little nervous making my way up the flight of stairs that took visitors to the first-floor Trainworld (and second-hand bookshop). My fears were realised when I came face to face with a whole lot of model railways.

This isn’t just a lone Thomas the Tank Engine looping around a plastic house. These are are complex model railway systems and miniature villages that men spend hours and hours perfecting in their trainrooms (what your uncle renames your cousin’s bedroom when she leaves home).

Trainworld was run by an elderly couple, and the man confessed to me that he liked the technical side of constructing and running tracks, and is less fussed by the modelling side of things.

Shell

There were several large tracks, including one with a tiny illuminated sign for Maurice’s sponsor, Shell. But I was only there to see one – the oldest one, Lilliput.

Work on the Lilliput model village and railway started in 1948 by Mr Bill Knapp of Napier. He worked on it for 25 years, taking it to Wellington for show every Christmas. Napier’s mayor was so impressed by Lilliput that he bought it and gifted it to the city in 1970. I wonder what that council meeting would have been like…

Councillor: Kia ora, Your Worship. How was your holiday in Nelson?
The Mayor: OMG, it was so amazing. I saw this awesome model railway.
Councillor: Oh, true?
The Mayor: Hells yeah. In fact, it was so awse that I totally bought it and am gifting it to the city! Cos that’s just the kind of dude I am! Sharing the love!
Councillor: [cries]

But poor old Lilliput. 18 years at the museum, 10 years at Marineland. Has it found a permanent home at Trainworld?

Lilliput itself is quite fun, though obviously constructed with American model train kitset pieces. It’s a time capsule of post-war Americana. There’s a drive-in (complete with naughtily rocking cars), a collection of modernist ranch houses, but also a few Napier touches, including a decent enough replica of the T&G building.

Downtown

It’s a rather eccentric little tourist attraction. I suspect that because it’s not overtly New Zealandic, it doesn’t yet have the same sense of importance as other elaborate, homemade, 60-year-old craft objects would.

But in a way, finding Lilliput in a corner of nerdy old Trainworld seems apt. It’s the sort of thing that little boys go mental for, but I also think it has appeal for older boys, like Maurice.

Yes, back to Maurice. His next recommendation was a classic Napier tourist attraction – a stroll along Marine Parade.

3 Comments

  1. I have often thought, Robyn, that you should go and visit the Tawhiti Museum in Hawera. This guy makes models – of people, of historic battles, of everything you can think of. It’s fantastic. I always mean to recommend it to you.

    • I stopped by Hawera a few years ago but only visited the water tower. That museum sounds rad – the next time I’m on a Taranaki road trip, I’ll pay a visit!

  2. We visited Napier in 2009 and being a model train buff went to Trainworld. The big display was OK but like you, the highlight for me was seeing Liliput. It blew me away, as i had seen it on a Leyland brothers program roughly 30 years ago, and had thought that if I ever got to NZ i would try and see it. It does look a bit tired but the number of little moving bits and pieces was just amazing. Thanks for the review.

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