A MODELS and toys business based in the hamlet of Bell Busk, near Coniston Cold, will celebrate its 30th anniversary this summer.

From humble beginnings on the kitchen table to a global exporter, Nick Metcalfe – once a printer’s apprentice living in a caravan in his parent’s garden – has built a business that brings joy to people around the world. That very garden is where the Metcalfe factory stands today and is now the epicentre of a card modelling phenomenon.

Metcalfe Models has become a popular choice for model railway hobbyists with a community of loyal fans, and it is now on a mission to grow the range via new means of print production and state-of-the-art technologies, the future of card kits has never looked stronger, it says.

Last year, the business entered unchartered waters. It was the first time that demand had peaked so high, it had to temporarily stop sales – not just for the safety of staff during coronavirus lockdown, but to ensure it was not completely drained of stock from record sales. The warehouse and production line have still not caught up.

But in each of those card kit buildings lives the soul of a man who, to this day, enjoys nothing more than having the entire printworks to himself so he can quietly develop his ideas.

What many would see as an imaginative model railway layout crammed with Metcalfe kits, the reality is a jigsaw of Nick’s memories immortalised in card. The industrial unit, the farm, the cinema, the Settle-Carlisle buildings, the rows of terraced houses and high street shops, each one forged from sentiment.

The village school kit includes a dedication to his first teacher. “At school my head teacher, the wonderful Margery Roberts christened me “The Cardboard King,” says Nick.

“I remember as a boy my favourite pastime was making things from card. There was a wonderful set of farmyard buildings to cut out and build on the back of Cornflakes packets which kept me entertained for hours.

“I could make anything from card, from puppet theatres to a bobsleigh run.”

Nick and Judy Metcalfe had a dream to start the business after an idea sparked during a trip to Ireland.

Nick, who at the time was working in a commercial printworks in Skipton, came across a simple card cut-out farm kit in a gift shop and his mind raced through all the possibilities that printing on card could bring.

Four years later, in 1991, he had persuaded his boss into allowing him to hire the printing press when they were not in use.

Through the week Nick worked full time in the printworks before setting the machinery up for Metcalfe’s kit runs on a weekend.

Judy worked from home collating and packing, then the pair would set off around the north of England to sell the products to small gift shops. The first kits were a Yorkshire Dales farm, a Punch and Judy Puppet Theatre and a scale model of Embsay Station.

In the following years, a series of chance meetings led to Metcalfe’s continued expansion. Nick had stumbled into Ruth Anison, the spearhead behind the rejuvenation of the Settle-Carlisle line, on a celebratory steam journey.

“I thrust samples of my kits in her hand just as she was about to sit down for lunch with Michael Portillo,” he says.

Nick says he will never forget the people who helped Metcalfe along the way. “A few weeks later she had arranged for us to meet the newly formed Settle and Carlisle Railway Trust and the Yorkshire Dales National Park merchandising team, who were looking for things to enhance the shops planned on route.”

He was asked to design and produce kits that depicted buildings along the line. He was able to produce 1,000 of each and sell the over-runs to whoever he wished.

Nick retained the rights to the designs and placed his first advert in Railway Modeller in 1992. Sales rocketed, so more model railway designs were needed.

“At 10 o’clock one Sunday evening, I received a phone call from the CEO of the UK-based manufacturer of model railway accessories, PECO, Sidney Pritchard.

He was so impressed with our little kits that we struck a deal for PECO to be our UK distributors.”

The deal was never put in writing and stood for 24 years. “We were so lucky to have had this relationship with them, they are a great team to work with and even though we split from them four years ago, we are still great friends with everyone at PECO.”

By 1995, Nick was still in full-time employment at the printworks. He and Judy were out for lunch one day, grappling with the idea of risking his secure job to take Metcalfe Models full time – little did he know that the couple at the next table were about to change the course of the business.

“This bubbly couple, Jane and Gordon Peggs, immediately talked us into viewing an empty industrial unit next to theirs. Within a month we had bought a printing press and I left my job. So from then on, Metcalfe Models’ address was The Sidings Business Park, Engine Shed Lane.”

Although it was not for long as they quickly outgrew the unit and within two years had to move to larger premises nearby.

In 1998, disaster struck the Metcalfe family. Nick’s childhood home, where his parents still lived, was hit by a devastating flood.

“Their cars washed away, and they lost everything on the ground floor. My mum was taken ill that same night, so it was decided quickly that they needed to sell up and move to higher ground.

“The estate agent was shocked at the state of the property, a Grade II, 17th century Yorkshire long house with an acre of land sat in the shadow of the Settle-Carlisle railway line. The walls were buckling with props holding up the roof, not to mention the flood risk.”

Nick entertained the idea of a major building project, and decided to take a gamble and buy the property with the view of developing it.

“It was a huge risk. We knew that once we started, we had to make it work otherwise the house would be unsellable. It didn’t help that we were refused permission to de-list the property in order for us to redevelop it, so we had to come up with another plan.”

It was settled – the site would become the new home of Metcalfe Models.

In April 2000, the unique house and barn were ready. By 2009, Metcalfe had outgrown the space again, so a new building went up in the grounds giving more scope for further expansions over the next decade. A new two-story building will be built in 2021 to house more machines and equipment.

Over the last few years, Metcalfe has grown the list of shops it’s distributes to across the UK. They also export around the world, with wholesalers as far as New Zealand and Australia.

With the growth of the business, so too has its community of loyal customers. With prolific fans across social media and forums, Metcalfe also has its own Facebook Community with nearly 9,000 active members who share their images, stories and tips on creating Metcalfe layouts.

Throughout the year, Nick and Judy always maintained that Metcalfe would remain a family business.

Their eldest daughter Paula and her husband Chris came into the business in 2016, and the youngest daughter Sophie manages the social media platforms and advertising as well as running her own business.

Nick’s 92-year-old father Jim also worked shifts in the packing department right up until his final few weeks in 2016. The Metcalfe factory has employed many local people over the years and currently has a team consisting of two sisters and a husband and wife team.

While expansions continue, Metcalfe is working on making their kit range bigger and better. It has put a huge amount of investment into laser-cutting capabilities with five lasers, and a sixth currently on order, to keep up with demand.

Last year Metcalfe became one of only three manufacturers in Europe to take delivery of a new compact card laminator from the US - Vistaprint being one of the other early adopters. Nick is also keen to explore new technologies including 3D printing which would open up new avenues in product design.


To find out more about Metcalfe Models, visit: www.metcalfemodels.com