As a boy I remember climbing the hill next to Canoe Lake to retrieve a lost ball, only to discover a castle I never knew existed.
Drawn almost magnetically to it, I hopped over a small fence and began to explore the miniature fortifications and tower that overlooked the sea. Lost in my own imagination, I had strayed into the fascinating Southsea Model Village.
A very understanding staff member escorted me to my waiting parents, but not before my imagination had been captured even further by the village’s tiny houses, shops and train bridges that lay below.
The feeling of wonder that I experienced at this intricate and life-like little world is something that I remember to this day.
Although ownership of the village has changed over the years, it is reassuring to know that the current owners still understand what draws children to the village.
‘I think people like small things, particularly children,’ says Mike Armet, co-owner.
‘To them it’s like an imaginary world. They can see the whole picture in their imaginations – it makes them feel big.’
More than 20 years since I first trespassed into the beautifully detailed little world, the model village is now owned by Mike and Janet Neil, who have tried their best to preserve the imaginative local attraction.
Mike says: ‘I’ve been a co-owner of the model village for 11 years now, since I retired from being a butcher and a trader.
‘I came to Portsmouth in 1974 because I loved the place. My wife was born here, I met her in London and we used to come here for weekends. I fell in love with the city and bought a shop on London Road. Portsmouth as a city has been good to me.’
He adds: ‘The model village is part of Portsmouth, part of the history since the 1950s and we’re losing too much of the old seafront here. That’s my feeling about it, it’s changed.
‘Janet phoned me up and asked if I heard that they were going to close down the model village.
‘I used to take my son to the village when he was little and I thought that was a shame. We went to the council and our idea was to preserve it as a model village. We wanted to conserve really, that was our idea.
‘It had been badly neglected and I was a bit worried about taking it on because there was a lot of work to be done. It was in a state and we’re still working on it now.
‘It’s a small business so we couldn’t afford a big staff. We rely on volunteers but we’ve got only two or three regular volunteers at the moment. They’re indispensable to us, we couldn’t survive in the same way without them.’
Thanks to the largely volunteer staff, it’s not just the houses that are small at the model village but also the prices and Mike thinks this makes for a great family day out.
‘There’s nothing else like the model village. A family can spend the whole day for £9. There’s nowhere else you can spend the day with a picnic and the view from the top of the hill. Kids love it, they get the trains and they can run around. It’s safe, there’s one way in and one way out.’
The village features a variety of highly detailed models including shops, Tudor houses, an impressive model of Portsmouth Guildhall and even a miniature Spinnaker Tower. But Mike thinks it’s another part of the attraction that really appeals to younger visitors.
‘Children love the trains. We have five of them and they run all the way round and loop. Some boys will come in and stand still watching the trains for two or three hours. The first question a lot of people ask before they come in is “are the trains running?” but they’re always running unless we have a breakdown.’
Helping to keep the trains running is volunteer Mick Bright.
‘I’ve been working here on and off since about 2007,’ says Mick. ‘My trade was electrics so I helped with that and also with plumbing and gardening. It’s like a home, there’s a bit of everything to do and I just help out where I can.
‘The village is open to the weather so any uncoated wood starts deteriorating.
‘A lot of those buildings were built in 1956. Back then it was just model houses and grass and then about 18 years ago they put in the trains.
‘Because of moisture and dirt, the track and the trains get regular cleaning. It’s a lot of work, but just to see the children in here with a smile on their face and the way they jump around and chase the trains, it’s so worth it!’
Mick has also been delving into the history of Lumps Fort, which was built in the 1800s as part of Portsmouth’s naval defence and is now the site of the model village.
‘So many people have asked about the history of the fort,’ says Mick.
‘It dates back to the 1500s as an earth works fort. In 1822 or thereabouts, three acres of its seaward side was washed away by the sea and then it was rebuilt in 1861.
‘The fort also used to be part of a semaphore chain that stretched from Portsmouth Docks to London and they could get a message to the capital in 15 minutes to warn of French invasion.’
The model village uses several parts of the old fort, including the ammunition store which houses the Old Tyme Model Funfair and the main armoury which doubles as a workshop.
Mick has posted details throughout the site about various points of interest and also has a collection of historical information on the fort’s riflemans tunnel.
‘The history of the fort is interesting and I would like to think that some people come here to learn about it. I’m putting it together piece by piece and then I add it all together for people.
‘There’s a lot of history here and I’m sure we’re only just scratching the surface.’
By preserving the model village Mike, Janet and their team have saved a part of Southsea’s past and Mike hopes that future generations will also get the chance to enjoy this unique local attraction.
‘It was fun bringing my son to the village and my grandchildren have been here too,’ says Mike. ‘Lots of people come back with their memories of how long it’s been since they have been here and they bring their children. It makes the village part of the history of the whole city.
‘When we came here there were about 60 or 70 model villages in the UK but I think there are only 30 others now,’ says Mick. ‘We didn’t want to see it redeveloped, we took over the village to preserve it for future generations. We’re preserving it so that people are able to make their own memories here too.’
n To see a video interview with Mike, visit portsmouth.co.uk/video