Full steam ahead for niche trade in heart of the Moors

Alex (left) and Chris Yates walking by some of the holiday cottages on Hill Farm, Beck Hole. (GL1010/25b)
Alex (left) and Chris Yates walking by some of the holiday cottages on Hill Farm, Beck Hole. (GL1010/25b)
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It’s a fair bet that when Chris Yates started out as a rep for Hornby model railways in 1977 he would have scoffed at the idea of selling engines, coaches, tracks and buildings from Beck Hole in the middle of the North York Moors.

This was way before the worldwide web had seen the light of day, when children still played on bikes, raced Scalextric and flicked to Subbuteo rather than trying to kill imaginary beasts and steal cars whilst playing computer games.

Train sets were one of those special Christmas gifts you might get one year followed by Hot Wheels the next and perhaps a new engine or coach set. Every toy store had its own plethora of Hornby equipment, but now there are very few outlets in comparison to the halcyon days of the 60s and 70s.

TMC The Model Centre based at Chris’ 16-acre Hill Farm is a somewhat remote location for visitors but offers an Aladdin’s Cave of model railways for the enthusiast and eager youngster.

“Right from being a kid I was always interested in trains. I grew up in the railway town of Doncaster and was involved with the school’s trainspotting club. My dad gave me my first train set, a secondhand Trans Continental, and I used to switch the house lights off and had the track going through the dining room and the kitchen with the loco’s lights on.

“I became a member of the Doncaster Model Railway Club and you could say my die was cast. From school I went to work in a model shop and then my dream job came up as a Hornby rep. My teachers had said I was unemployable but I ended up getting what I considered to be the best job of anyone leaving school with a company car, expenses and responsibility for a multi-million pound turnover, plus an involvement with something I’d had an interest in as a kid. Now we’re here and I’ve got a shed in the middle of the Moors and I’m as happy as a pig in muck.”

The North York Moors Railway runs just 50 yards from Hill Farm where it connects Grosmont, just one mile away, to Goathland, two miles away. Walks around here are known as the rail trail and the track bed is still the original laid in George Stephenson’s time.

The area is steeped in railway history. Chris fell in love with Beck Hole many years prior to taking on Hill Farm where his family also now run holiday cottage accommodation. They let out their land to a local sheep farmer.

“My wife Diane introduced me to the area and when our children Alex and Emma were younger we would always be up here. We bought a little holiday cottage in the village of Beck Hole and I used to come out of the gate, pop over the hump backed bridge and turn left into the gem of a pub that is The Birch Hall Inn.

“In a three-way triangle of a move that included a property in Goathland we took on Hill Farm farmhouse, its acreage and farm buildings from Alison Stephenson in 2005. We then moved lock stock and barrel from our main home of 25 years where we’d lived in Walton, near Wetherby.”

Chris has lived through some challenging times in the toy world. Triang Hornby went into receivership in 1980 before Hornby’s rebirth. He has witnessed times when the company employed 2,500 in its production centre in Margate in 1979, to just 50 by the time he left, following the move of tooling to China in 1995.

And so he left Hornby in 1998 to set up his own specialist shops.

“We put model railways in a new environment by giving them the ‘jewellery box’ treatment. We started in the Trafford Centre in Manchester that September and opened TMCs right across the Midlands and North of England. TMC was then taken over by a company called Modelzone and I worked with them for two-and-a-half years, leaving in 2007. They went bust in 2012.”

The toy and in particular the model market had changed. Although Chris is a self-confirmed old-style retailer his son Alex was on hand assimilating all the latest knowledge on e-marketing to take the new TMC forward from its little base in the hills where they now employ a team of eight.

“The team we have are all highly experienced professionals who have so much talent in building and painting model engines. They all largely came from the team I had when we were running the TMC stores and we’ve now been here nine years.

“What Alex has done has transformed our business. I’m an old fashioned retailer with a counter and a till, but realistically while this is a lovely part of the world to come to and everyone’s eyes light up when they step inside and see what we have, we’re never going to set the world alight with foot traffic up here. Alex has made sure that our on-screen presence is excellent whether through social media, our website or mailing lists and that means that nearly 95 per cent of our business is now conducted by post, online, phone and email.”

Chris’ shed in the hills is an amazing experience for anyone who enjoys model railways, or simply to enthuse new generations. He has moved into the market of developing model buildings from the North York Moors area for layouts in addition to those already in the catalogues.

“We have a model of The Birch Hall Inn in Beck Hole and several related to the Heartbeat TV series,” he said.