End of the line comes back to life

Railways properties are always popular with buyers - but tracking them down is never easy. John Coutts reports on where to look to find your ideal stationmaster's cottage

Set in the heart of rural Herefordshire, Station House at Berrington-on-Eye is the perfect country hideaway. It was once the village railway station, but for the last 10 years this handsome sandstone building has been the home of Don Wieden and his partner. "It was really just a station master's house," says Wieden. "You had to walk onto the platform outside to get to the waiting room. We've opened up various areas of the house you couldn't get into, but we've kept as much as we could."

Set in the heart of rural Herefordshire, Station House at Berrington-on-Eye is the perfect country hideaway. It was once the village railway station, but for the last 10 years this handsome sandstone building has been the home of Don Wieden and his partner. "It was really just a station master's house," says Wieden. "You had to walk onto the platform outside to get to the waiting room. We've opened up various areas of the house you couldn't get into, but we've kept as much as we could."

With a wood-panelled entrance hall - complete with original ticket hatch - and a signalbox for a garden shed, this former Great Western station oozes the kind of period charm that railway buffs dream about. The station is next to a line that's still in use, but it's 40 years since any passengers alighted here and the few trains that go by don't disturb the couple. "The line is not as active as it should be," he says. "Network Rail is very considerate - they let us know in advance if they're going to do any engineering work."

The idea of turning old railway buildings into homes first took hold in the Sixties. When the Beeching axe fell in 1963, the railway network was halved and more than 3,000 stations were closed. Many of these buildings were simply demolished or abandoned. Others were sold off cheaply and converted into homes.

Forty years down the line, the market in old stationmasters' houses and crossing keepers' cottages is buoyant. Buildings like these are popular with house-hunters looking for something out of the ordinary. "I've got a list of about 250 people who've contacted me over that last two or three years looking for railway property" says Network Rail's Mike Stancliffe, whose department deals with selling-off redundant railway infrastructure. "Certainly in the north I've sold something like 40 properties over the last four years" he says. "Train operating companies might come to us and say, 'Look, we don't need this building any longer', but there's no routine pattern to it and it takes a while to get properties released."

Tracking down property for sale is no easy task for potential purchasers and privatisation has complicated matters. Buildings still owned by the railways are now split between two different organisations. Network Rail deals with buildings in current operational use and BRB (Residuary) Ltd - the last official vestige of British Rail - is in charge of selling off non-operational land and structures, most of which are left over from the pre-privatisation era.

British Rail's extensive property portfolio is now handled by Rail Property Ltd. The list - which can be accessed online - includes everything from individual buildings to whole branch lines, although Rail Property stresses that only a small number of remaining properties are suitable for residential conversion. Property details can be obtained from Lambert Smith Hampton at Peterborough (01733 563921).

For house-hunters seeking stations and crossing keepers' cottages, contacting Network Rail is a better bet. Network Rail has a separate property portfolio - Railway Estates - but there's no public list of buildings awaiting disposal. Potential purchasers should also bear in mind that many of Network Rail's buildings are just yards from active railway lines - although that doesn't seem to deter buyers. Recent disposals include a Victorian stationmaster's house at Bare Lane near Morecambe in Lancashire which sold for £132,000 at auction - £12,000 more than its upper guide price - and a crossing keeper's bungalow in Cumbria which went for £102,000.

Many of the buildings released by Rail Properties and Network Rail are sold off by specialist auctioneers such as Pugh & Company in Preston (01772 722444). "We must have sold dozens if not hundreds over the years" says director Roy Pugh, who once auctioned a beach owned by British Rail. "They're normally former stationmasters' houses and they're quite a good size as well. There's always been a demand for them."

A large proportion of former railway buildings are already in use as private houses and finding property can be largely down to luck - there are far more estate agents than there are railway buildings for sale. This is a point that struck railwayman Ray King. He hopes his rail property website, launched earlier this year, will help simplify the process and he's encouraging estate agents to advertise on it. "There's a lot of demand out there, but it's a question of getting the word out," he says. "People will tend to put stations on the local market. What I'm trying to do is to get nationally known."

Two properties advertised on the website - a former crossing keeper's cottage at Themelthorpe in Norfolk and Gedney station in Lincolnshire - illustrate the extremes buyers can expect. Gatehouse Cottage at Themelthorpe is surrounded by fields and has been restored as a family home, with a large sitting room, inglenook fireplace, outbuildings and about half an acre of land with mature trees. The railway it served has long since closed. It's on sale for £225,000 (for further details, contact 01362 683278).

Gedney station, near King's Lynn, presents quite a different picture. The building looks pretty much as it did when the line closed nearly 40 years ago - even the platform name board survives - but it's in need of substantial modernisation. "It would suit a railway enthusiast," says David Irving of agents Grounds & Co. "Or somebody looking to create their own unique property with a railway influence." The station has planning permission for conversion to a residential dwelling and it is on the market for £185,000. Fully restored and converted, though, it could be worth as much as £350,000. The building is offered for sale by Grounds & Co (01945 585041).

Network Rail property: 0161 838 1241

www.brb.gov.uk

www.railproperties.co.uk

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