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The Railway Children: How Hornby is keeping it fresh at one hundred

It is to be expected of a man who has spent much of his coming up 50- year career within the toy industry surrounded by the hobby, that Simon Kohler, marketing and development director at Hornby Hobbies is more than a little into toy trains.

What you might not expect to discover, however, is just how infectious his enthusiasm for the genre is.

That not only does Simon Kohler believe it should be recognised as a form of therapy or adopted as a method of encouraging mental wellbeing, as well as brought into the National Curriculum, but that by the end, you’ll come away invested in his rhetoric just as much as he is, makes him ideally suited to his role with the iconic British firm.

It’s on the subject of Hornby’s 100th anniversary this year that ToyNews gets a moment with the director in the midst of Hornby’s annual retailer showcase – which, of course, this year includes a special product line-up reflective of each of the last ten decades of the business. However, it is on the topic of the impact of the Hornby brand and it’s place within society today, that conversation lingers.

Hornby after all, according to the expert himself, and the model railway hobby, is simply “part of the fabric of this country.”

“You name me another hobby or past time that teaches you topography, art, geography, logistics, electronics, etc, you’d be hard pressed,” he says. “What do people get out of modelling railways? Some people just like to watch trains going around… fine.

“Some people like to create a moment in time, a snapshot, by creating a world to lose themselves in. It is a wonderful past time, and not because it pays my wages, but the reason it’s lasted so long is it’s fascinating.”

Listening to Kohler reel off the centenary celebration models – one for each of the ten decades that the Hornby business has spanned – alongside some of its recent developments for its brands like Barrett and Lowke and its embrace of the fantasy- driven Steampunk genre, it’s hard to argue that railway modelling is anything but a fascinating thing.

Most interesting of all, is its ability to divide opinion. Railway modelling certainly can’t claim to be everyone’s cup of tea, in much the same way that not everybody enjoys tea. There are those that find no better solace than in a mug of PG’s finest, and there are those that really, really like railway modelling.

“Some people hate it, some people love it,” says Kohler, “but none can deny that it is in the fabric of our society. The [TV series] Great Model Railway opened a lot of eyes to it, showing that it’s not all about a train rolling around a field. You saw teams creating knights on horseback, or dinosaurs, or earthquakes and volcanoes… this is miniature engineering at its finest and it forces you to apply your mind.”

You may have a bad day at the office, goes Kohler’s argument, you go up to your room and start making a fence, or a volcano, and time disappears.

“I personally think it should be used for people’s mental health and part of the National Curriculum,” he states.

“You learn about physics, you learn about inertia… it has got so much going for it, and this is the magic as to why it has survived for such a long time.”

And 100 years of Hornby is a long time. Putting it into context, it was in 1920 that the first model, the O-Gauge, was released by Hornby. It will be making its return this year in the form of a newly commissioned release landing in the 21st Century two times the size of its original format, and featuring the latest in modern day tooling. The same goes for the Hornby replica Stevenson’s Rocket, launched in the 1960s.

“You get a feel for that, I have chosen, as we go through each decade, milestone product that will make you go, ‘Oh yes… of course!’ And actually we have been spoiled for choice with what to refresh… but listening to people, I think we have got the balance right,” Kohler explains.

Read the full interview with Hornby by clicking here, or pick up your copy of ToyNews at London Toy Fair today.

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