INTERIORS: A LIFE IN THE SIDINGS

BACK TO BASICS In the old railway carriage that is his weekend retreat Will Brown has accumulated the kind of cupboards, kettles and cookers that his grandmother probably threw on the scrapheap. But to him they're the acme of desirable kitchenalia
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WILL BROWN is reluctant to admit that he has a bit of a thing about trains. "Interested in trains? Um, quite," he says, brushing the question away like an annoying fly. But later on, once he is confident that you don't have him down in the slightly-odd-with-an-anorak category, he lets his enthusiasm out - on a short lead at first, just a few historical details relating to the railway carriage he lives in at weekends. But then, as he warms to his subject (like a man who suddenly realises it's OK to bring out the pile of pornographic magazines from under the bed), the copies of Back Track - a magazine for railway enthusiasts - and old books on the subject emerge.

It soon becomes clear that this is an entirely distinct preoccupation from train-spotting - it is much more understandable, much more visual, than standing around on a cold platform with a grease-proof pack of fish- paste sandwiches in your pocket and a notebook and pencil stub in your hand. Will flicks to an article on trains used as "camping coaches" - right up to the 1960s, rather spartanly fitted-out coaches were shunted to sidings at picturesque stations and let out to happy holidaymakers. You can see why the idea appeals to Will, who has only ever been abroad twice - to France, where on his first visit he was attacked by a gang of French teddy boys and the second time was arrested in a poodle parlour (buying a tartan coat for his Scottie dog) on account of bearing a striking resemblance to a wanted criminal.

No, like a John Betjeman poem, Will, born and bred in Elstree, belongs in England. He has not seen the rose red city of Petra, or the lakes of Kashmir, but he has spent many happy hours at Brockford mid-Suffolk Light Railway Museum and the Gas Museum at Fakenham.

In fact, when you're in his railway carriage, it's not the train imagery which is all-pervading, it's the aura of the den, the garden shed, children playing at house. From Betjeman to Enid Blyton. At any moment you expect to hear the voice of mother calling you in for tea.

Will and his partner, Marie Willey, first encountered the railway carriage when they used to come to Cromer for weekends away from London, where they worked - he as a fashion designer, she as a fashion stylist. They were cycling when they saw it behind a hedge: converted into a house, with a bathroom extension, it was called Cosy Nook. "It was idyllic - roses round the door, a dog sitting on the steps." The owner, Sid, a First World War veteran, had lived in it for 65 years; the railway companies, Will explains, sold off old stock in the Twenties as part of a government scheme to house ex-servicemen.

When Sid died, his niece advertised it for sale in the local newspaper and was happy to sell it to Will and Marie because they were the only ones eccentric enough to know what to do with it. She even let them pay the pounds 800 asking-price in instalments as they had only just moved to Norwich from London and all their money had gone into opening their shop, Old Town, from which they sell "kitchenalia" and Will's "workwear": beautifully made-to-order sturdy clothes in drill, denim and linen. Marie can laugh at it now, but when they left London they had this idea that they could sell galvanised buckets and scrubbing brushes: "the sort of thing that's hard to get in London".

But Norwich was not ready to look at gingham peg bags and old enamelware in quite the right light - possibly because the ironmonger is not yet extinct there. "It's not nostalgic for us because we've got no memories of this kind of stuff. But I suppose because the shop is in a cobbled street it puts people in an olde worlde mood. I tell you, every other person who comes in to the shop says, 'Ooh, we used to have a bread bin just like that.' And I have to say, 'Oh, did you? How interesting,'" Marie explains between clenched teeth.

So most of the "kitchenalia" has found its way to a London antique shop, where it goes down rather better, and Old Town is concentrating more on the clothes side, which have made the transition from South-East London to Norfolk more easily. "In London I used to get streams of young black blokes coming up to my flat asking me to make them trousers for clubbing in," explains Will. "When we moved here the market changed instantly to middle-aged blokes in guernseys - men who go misty-eyed at the sight of a pull-on workshirt. They like 'real' clothes, and they like the idea that the clothes are made on the premises. It gives them the essence of something being made to order, without it being made to measure."

As Will sits outside his carriage in the sweltering heat, dressed in one of his drill shirts, double- breasted linen jackets and a white neckerchief, talking in quiet measured tones (in contrast to Marie's wonderful Geordie ranting - her pathological hatred of people who don't spend money in her shop really comes alive in her description of the queue at Norwich's Tesco on a Wednesday night), it's tempting to see all this as a rural idyll, the ultimate get-away-from-it-all, liberally soaked in eau de nostalgia.

But there is a touch of quiet anarchy which sets it apart from the usual urbanites' fantasy. Will sees the railway carriage as "a pre-war eyesore, a town-and-country planners' bad dream, with stacks of junk and no sanitation". Though his ultimate dream is to keep the carriage in an orchard with beehives, and to rebuild it as Sid would have lived in it, for the moment it stands in a field rented out to them by a sympathetic landowner, who also gives them access to a standpipe for water and his lavatory for those times when the nearest bush will not suffice. Lighting is by storm lantern and there is a small Calor Gas cooker, which is used largely for making huge quantities of tea in a big brown teapot. There is no fridge , but a 1950s kitchen cabinet (gosh, we used to have one of... whoops) contains china that Marie has got sick of waiting to sell in the shop.

This weekend retreat is not just an exercise in nostalgia, Will insists, his pulse raised just a fraction, "but a reaction to the empty experience of much of modern life, the soullessness of huge swathes of modern living: sportswear, B&Q, the fixation with car culture, shopping malls and the destruction of town centres."

Yes, it would be difficult to imagine Will in a tracksuit. In fact it's difficult to place him in this half of the century at all. And you can see why he has dwelt on thoughts of Sid with his shrapnel wounds living here when it was - and arguably still is - "a home for heroes". Sid may be dead but Cosy Nook lives on.

WHERE TO BUY THE LOOK

OLD TOWN, 32 Elm Hill, Norwich NR3 1HG (01603 628100): Will Brown and Marie Wiley's shop; own range of gingham bed linen, small selection of kitchenalia, and Will's clothes which are also available by mail order.

MICHAEL LEWIS, 16 Essex Road, London N1 8LN (0171-359 7733): Islington antique shop which sells Old Town's French enamelware and other kitchenalia.

BED BAZAAR, The Old Station, Station Road, Fram-lingham, Suffolk IP13 9EE (01728 723756): comfortable, modern double beds are just not on for the Cosy Nook look - you have to suffer and snuggle up in a large single iron bed, or matching boarding-school styles. Has a vast selection of old beds.

MELIN TREGYNT, Castle Morris, Haverfordwest, Dyfed SA62 5UX (01348 891644): duvets are another no-no. It has to be blankets and sheets, tightly tucked in with hospital corners. Melin Tregynt do lovely window-pane checks in wool, available by mail order. Telephone for a brochure.

CATH KIDSTON, 8 Claren-don Cross, London W11 4AP (0171-221 4000): kitchen cabinets, chairs and funky fabrics for the "post-war homemaker look".

RUSSELL AND CHAPPLE, 23 Monmouth Street, Lon-don WC2H 9DE (0171-836 7521): canvas, calico and other workmanlike fabrics.

WHERE TO SEE IT

MID-SUFFOLK LIGHT RAILWAY MUSEUM, Brockford Station, Wetheringsett, Suffolk IP14 5PW (01473 742358): the mid-Suffolk Light Railway used to be like a kind of jumble-sale railway says Will, done on the cheap with corrugated iron buildings. There's a "delightful little walk along the track bed for about a mile" and it is altogether "charming".

GAS MUSEUM, Hempton Road, Fakenham, Norfolk NR21 7LA (01328 863 150): according to Marie Wiley, Fakenham is the sort of place you would not stop; "in fact you'd put your foot down and get out as fast as possible". What it does have - and this may not be everyone's idea of a good day out - is the museum with its display of gas stoves from the earliest models to the present day. Open 28 May-17 Sept, Tues, Thurs and Sun, 10.30-3.30 .

AMBERLEY MUSEUM, Hough-ton Bridge, Amberley, West Sussex BN18 9LT (01798 831370): industrial heritage museum built on the site of old chalk pits. Will recommends the bus body converted into a cottage.

PARK END, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire: not so much a village, more a kind of clearing in the middle of the forest with weatherboard houses and a bit of rusty railway line ("which is always nice"), but it has the mix of industrial and rural Will likes: "coal dust, rust and ferns".

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