The little folk of Cockington Green Gardens are a hardy lot, some - like the soccer players looking for the ball or the shepherd herding his sheep in front of the castle - have been posing for four decades, delighting generations of visitors to the Canberra tourism icon.
The brainchild of former Canberra couple Doug and Brenda Sarah, now 81 and 77 respectively and living at Ulladulla on the South Coast, Cockington Green continues to be run by their family, led by son Mark, who is dedicated to constantly maintaining and updating the whimsical displays of tiny, painstakingly accurate structures and people. Doug, too, continues to dream, scheme and invent in his home workshop. His latest project in the works for Cockington Green is a miniature display of Australian housing, from Indigenous dwellings to modern McMansions.
"He can't stop," Sarah says, of his dad.
Sunday marks 40 years to the day since Cockington Green opened to the public on November 3, 1979. It is a remarkable story in so many ways - the fact it is still a family-run business and that it was not only a pioneer for the tourism industry in Canberra but for private enterprise in the then public sector-saturated national capital.
Dad later found out that his file with the Territories Department was marked 'Not Expected to Succeed'.Mark Sarah on the family's early battles with bureaucracy.
Mark Sarah remembers the open day well. He was 17 and already learning how to take on the family business. On the first day, he was busy welcoming visitors to what was then a little oasis among dusty paddocks and grazing cows, long before any of the current surrounding attractions such as the George Harcourt Inn or National Dinosaur Museum. It was also a time when the few tourist draws in the national capital amounted to the War Memorial and the Mugga Lane zoo.
Mark remembers his parents working feverishly to get the attraction open, Doug building the displays piece by piece in his workshop at the family home in Melba. Brenda was doing nights-shifts on the front desk at motels and other accommodation to keep the money coming in to bankroll the project. Doug eventually collapsed with exhaustion and was hospitalised the day before the opening. But he was back on deck the next day. "I just think he needed a lie down," Sarah says.
"Dad had heard whispers of another miniature village being built in Australia and he was dead set worried he was going to be beaten to the punch.
"If any of my friends or my sisters' friends would come over to the house, dad would swear them all to secrecy about what they'd seen. Dad would finish a building and then take a photo of it on the lawn and then hide it away."
John Miller, the former executive director of the Master Builders Association in the ACT, is a cousin of Mark's. Their mothers were sisters. (John's mum Noreen has sadly passed away). Like much of the rest of the family, John was also involved in creating and running Cockington Green. He remembers living at one point in the landmark Tudor-style building that was the family's home in the early days.
"It's always been a lovely family business," Miller says.
Their grandparents Bill and Marjorie Rose also worked on the project as did Doug's sister Elwin and her husband Russ Kinnane.
"They formed the nucleus of what would become Cockington Green," Sarah says.
"My grandfather was a fitter and turner and my aunt and uncle were very keen horticulturalists. Even though he was my mum's dad, my grandfather was very much like dad. He wouldn't stop and was very mentally alert."
John Miller played Aussie Rules for the Ainslie football club and one of his teammates was Ken Stone, an agile ruck rover who would go on to work for the Reserve Bank. But back in those early days of Cockington Green, Ken was good friends with the family and as fascinated by the unfolding project as anyone else. So much so,that on that open day 40 years ago, Ken become the No.1 ticket holder, the first person to officially walk through the gates.
"I think he almost knocked over three senior citizens to make sure he got in first," Miller says, with a laugh.
"He was just very determined to be the first person to get through the door. He was very proud of being the No.1 ticket holder."
The Sarahs had originally moved to Canberra from Ballarat in 1969. Doug was a builder but in Ballarat managed a ten-pin bowling alley. He brought the family to Canberra for a promotion managing the ten-pin bowling centre at the then Squash Bowl in Rudd Street, Civic.
Brenda had been born in the UK and it was a family trip back to England with their children, Mark, Sally-Anne and Melinda, in 1972, when the real spark was ignited to create Cockington Green. The family travelled the country for six months in a camper van converted from a Ford Thames. Mark said his parents had been particularly taken with the Babbacombe Model Village in Torquay.
"Dad thought that was wonderful and that it would be great to build something like that in Australia because it was totally unique and there was nothing like in in Australia at the time," Sarah says.
And so the family rallied, the grandparents, the aunt and uncle, the mum and dad and the kids, all dedicated to bringing to life a project that was as ambitious as it was different.
The first building Doug produced was in 1973, a small post-war duplex that was typical of council estates in the UK.
"It was very rough because he was working with materials he wasn't familiar with like fibreglass and fibreglass resin but the more he worked on them, the better they became," Doug Sarah says.
"But he did nearly poison the family. His workshop was in the garage at home and we also had a freezer in the garage. The fibreglass [fumes] and resin permeated the freezer and got into all the meat so everything tasted of fibreglass resin." Needless to say they soon spat it out.
The name Cockington Green came from the Sarahs' favourite real-life village, Cockington in Devon, and the "green" was added to emphasise the English-flavour of the early exhibits.
Mark says the family found some resistance to the idea of Cockington Green from the federal bureaucrats running Canberra at the time. It was the early 1970s and the public service was king. Not only were the Sarahs proposing an out-of-the-box tourist attraction, but they also had the audacity to try to create a private sector business. Added to that, they needed a commercial lease with a dwelling on it, something that even more confounded the public servants who had to approve it.
"Dad later found out that his file with the Territories Department was marked 'Not Expected to Succeed'," Sarah says.
"Canberra these days is much more a private sector town but back then, dad had to battle with the Territories Department even to get a sign up."
It was no accident that among the first-day crowd were two local politicians, Margaret Reid and John Haslem, who had believed in Cockington Green from the start and helped pave the way to make it a reality.
"Margaret came in to bat for mum and dad a lot and was quite instrumental in getting doors opened and things done," Sarah says.
"John was the same. He was a great Canberran, and very well-respected and helpful."
John Haslem, now 80, and a "semi-retired" real estate agent in Batemans Bay, remembers the "adventurous spirit" of the Sarahs.
"Cockington Green built what whole area, that's what started it all," he says.
The Cockington Green display has grown from a handful of English model-villages in 1979, through to 1998 when the International Display's first stage was unveiled. Those international exhibits have been created by Mark who, remarkably, has never visited any of the buildings in real life, creating the scale models from photographs. That has been made easier in the digital age (Flickr has been an invaluable resource), as many photographers take details of the architecture. And with the opening of each exhibit, comes the involvement of the corresponding mission to Australia, ambassadors being involved in the opening.
And the exhibits are, basically, priceless.
"It'd be hard to put a figure on them. Exhibits like the Ukrainian church could be worth around $150,000," Sarah says.
"But each exhibit takes 1000 to 3000 hours to build. And if we were charging like $80 to $90 an hour like a builder, you can soon see it often works out to be a lot more than $150,000."
Cockington Green now employs 40 staff, has won a national tourism award and numerous local and regional awards. Mark's sister Sally-Anne Schmitz is his business partner and brother-in-law Roland Schmitz is the model maker. His other sister Melinda Belecou lives in Sydney but still helps out with functions. Mark's wife Debbie is his PA but "I couldn't do anything without her". Their children Derek, Kyle and Samantha are also part of the scene. Nephew Christoper and niece Kyralee also work at Cockington Green. Cousin John Miller has returned to do whatever he can, including working in HR.
Mark is also a fierce advocate for Canberra, the local tourism industry and especially the national institutions, going in to bat for them against more and more budget cuts.
"Canberra needs to be a flourishing city and the quality of our institutions is beyond compare," he says.
Amidst all the celebration of whimsy and innovation and hard work that is the 40th anniversary of Cockington Green is the sobering fact that Doug and his son Mark are dealing with a cruel twist of fate. Both father and son have been diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a genetic condition that affects the peripheral nervous system and leads to progressive weakness and muscle wasting of the legs and arms.
These men use nothing else but their legs and arms, the demands of Cockington Green all about moving and building and fixing. Yet both men remain committed to the dream. Mark is general manager of Cockington Green but "I can be cleaning toilets in the morning and dealing with ambassadors in the afternoon". Mark believes the physical demands of Cockington Green has helped both him and his father fight the disease, keeping them physically active.
"Most people my age with the condition aren't still working," Sarah, 57, says. "Passion drives me.
"I think what I'm most proud of is that it's still a family business, we've survived for 40 years, which is something special in tourism. We've survived pilot strikes, SARS, the bushfires in 2003 when embers burnt holes in our marquee, even the latest flu epidemic which hit Canberra recently and affected our staff.
"I think what gives me the greatest pleasure is seeing people enjoy what we do and what we've done.
"I tell new staff who start here that, from day one, people will be telling you what a great job you've done like you built the whole place. There's not many jobs where you can get so much positive feedback every day."
- Cockington Green Gardens at Gold Creek Village celebrates its 40th birthday on Sunday, November 3. Entry is by gold coin donation for the Children's Medical Research Institute.