In an anonymous brick building, 10 minutes walk from Appleford station, is the most remarkable museum in Oxfordshire. Pendon Museum was set up by an Australian who fell in love with the beauty of the Vale of the White Horse in the mid-30s. He was horrified by the demolition of its beautiful cottages and started to create a series of precise and perfect models of cottages in the area.
Time for an example: imagine a card model of a half-timbered vicarage, about eight inches by four inches by three. Imagine how small creeper leaves in proportion to it would be. Now imagine that the front is covered with Virginia creeper, and each leaf is cut out of tissue paper, painted and stuck on individually. Now imagine that each tile is painted with a slightly different mix of watercolours.
Now imagine a landscape for the cottages to sink into, the size of a JCR, of Berkshire in August 1930: villages, railways, watercress beds, mills, and a hill fort, all as carefully made. No cottage took less than a weekend to make, most took months of part-time work.
Although seventy-five volunteers have worked on the scene since it was started in 1954, it is still not finished: about a third is plywood framing waiting for something to support.
A technical triumph, then, and a rather obsessive one. But more than that; it is beautiful. The colours are carefully balanced and adjusted to the lighting, the contours of the land planned to surprise visitors. Villages that didn’t seem to be there appear from behind tiny hills. The range of detail leaves you squinting, eyes pressed up against the glass: hollyhocks, farm machinery, rabbit warrens. There is wit, too: I was told that the railway station was placed where Didcot is, to replace it, ‘because Didcot is ugly, and we could do better’.
And, when you think you’ve got used to all that they can do, the museum staff turn the museum lights off and lights inside the cottages on. You see the bookcases and pictures inside, and you look down from a ridge, into a valley, going from a wet muddy autumn of squelchy leaves underfoot into a perfect summer night. Amazing.