“See how we struggled against the forces of tyranny”

Bexhill Museum’s latest exhibition features a railway model of snowy Bexhill in 1940, commissioned by comedian, activist and local patron, Eddie Izzard.

By Poppy Prescott

Train sets and railway models seem to be of great sentimental value to Eddie Izzard. It’s not to wonder why, when he opens up about the role they played in his household around the time of his mother’s death, when Eddie was just six. His father, Harold John Izzard, had built a train set of Bexhill which Eddie and his brother, Mark, worked on and played with shortly after their mother, Dorothy, died in 1968. Having occupied the boys during a tragic time, Eddie donated that train set to Bexhill Museum in 2016. He now unveils another. This is a different kind, but another nod to Eddie’s familial roots in Bexhill. As we stand before the newest railway, Eddie points out the hospital that his mother stayed in. “This compacts my whole history” says Eddie, and he moves on.

He points to a church in which his father was a choir boy. The railway is a roughly 60% accurate portrayal of snowy Bexhill at Christmas time in 1940, and it’s his father’s vision. “My dad was always animated about his time here” he says, and this model commemorates Harold and his time as an evacuee. When a young Harold returned home to Bexhill for Christmas in 1940, the heavy snow gifted him an extra week with his family. As the exhibition opens in time to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 2, this makes for an emotional symbol of the personal Izzard history and Bexhill’s historical one. Eddie said: “See how we struggled against the forces of tyranny…this [exhibition] is positive; see what we went through.” The 23rd Sussex Home Guard re-enactment group join as part of the museum’s new World War 2 exhibition in which the railway model is the centrepiece.

Whilst Eddie funded and inspired the model, it was the Bexhill Model Railway Club that designed and built it. It took project manager Ken Bywater and his team two years, volunteering three days a week to build the structure. The same team were behind the design of the 2016 railway that Eddie donated and it’s clear to see Eddie and designers Ken and Bill Hill are excited to show it to the public. Eddie says: “I had all these crazy ideas and these guys made it happen!” 

To the right of the model is an interactive screen that visitors can use to control the movements and sounds of the railway. Two trains move along the circuit running through the Bexhill-West, Central and Sidley stations, as authentic train sounds of train announcements and air-raid sirens roar. There is still some work to do, according to Ken. The modellers will spend the next year completing the promenade and beach, which has yet to be snowed upon and made authentically war-time, and fitting aircraft suspended from the ceiling. Ken seems excited and nervous that Eddie is already hinting at adding more dimensions to the exhibition, including a train that circuits the room near the ceiling. These volunteers’ hard work sustains Bexhill museum and there are smiling faces all around in the Park Gallery when they see what they and Eddie have achieved. It’s clear Eddie loves Bexhill and Bexhill loves Eddie, as the queue to see the exhibition stretches to the back of another gallery behind. 

The model gives generations an opportunity to reminisce about the Bexhill area. When Eddie is asked what parts of the model conjure up memories of his time growing up here, he points to Galley Hill, the former military bunker. “Spike Milligan was stationed here with a gun waiting for Hitler…I was stationed at the bottom much later selling ice-cream!” He takes joy in showing the house which belonged to his family, which is easy to spot as the modellers have built figurines of his family outside their house receiving Christmas presents. Harold’s grandmother died one week before he arrived home for Christmas, so Eddie has honoured them by designing his father in the scene to be giving a present to his grandmother. They are impressively detailed and a poignant reminder of its meaning. Eddie couldn’t appear more excited when one designer switches on the windmill – he shouts: “I remember driving past that windmill!” Eddie is insistent “people of all ages can enjoy this” and it seems to be true.

For more information on the exhibition visit bexhillmuseum.co.uk 

For more information on the Izzard family history, you can buy a copy of Harold’s book ‘Izzard: A Bexhill Family Journey’ at the Bexhill museum shop

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