Living above their station

A railway cottage with platform and track is the ultimate accessory for the train buff who has everything, says Lesley Gillilan
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The Independent Online
CHRIS Donald, editor of Viz magazine, was at home at Akeld Station one day when he caught a stranger snooping around the grounds of his former North Eastern Railway property. "Can I help you?" he asked. "Yes," replied the visitor, gesturing at th e doughty masonry of the Donald residence. "Would you mind standing next to that wall? I'm making a model of your house and I need a scale reference."

Chris is used to unsolicited callers. A stream of model railway enthusiasts, steam enthusiasts, even trainspotters (though a train has not passed this way since 1965), flows past Akeld, clutching notebooks and tape measures, cameras and camcorders. "Someof these people are a bit scarey," says Chris. "They are obsessed with numbers and statistics."

He insists he is not of the same species. "No, I'm a station enthusiast," he told me. "I've always had a thing about old stations. Years ago, I promised myself that if I ever made a few bob, I'd buy myself one." He bought three - plus two railway cottages and a signal box - all strung along the disused Alnwick to Cornhill branch line in Northumberland.

The long, two-storey buildings were designed in the 1880s by railway architect William Bell. With their tall chimneys and 18in-thick pink sandstone walls, their scale is totally out of proportion with the meagre population of the region. Waiting-rooms, ticket offices and loos have been neatly converted to living space overlooking platforms and slivers of lawned track.

As master of a three-stationed estate, the 34-year-old editor lives in Akeld and lets Kirknewton. Ilderton, his third property, has undergone restoration and was opened in September as a restaurant called, unsurprisingly, The Station House. It is decorated in North Eastern Railway red, furnished with collected "railwayana", and boasts an ornate cast-iron ticket grille, a bar in the booking office, and Victorian fireplaces bearing the former operator's initials. Outside, on a section of relaid track, Great Western Railway "camping coach" W334, resurrected from the rusty grave of an Essex boatyard, offers overnight accommodation. Chris Donald, let's face it, is obsessed.

He is not alone. There is a huge market for authentic railway relics. "Whether it's buttons, tickets and timetables or rolling stock, signs and signal boxes, there's a railway buff out there who wants to buy them," says Nigel Harris, editor of Steam Railway. Wealthier collectors might splash out on rare examples of steam engine nameplates, ex-BR mainline bridges or, like Chris Donald, old station buildings.

Most retired stations were first made available after Dr Richard Beeching's great railway sell-off of the mid-1960s. Private homes called The Station House proliferated alongside a zig-zagging network of dismantled country routes. Second-hand station houses occasionally come up for sale now, but as Nigel Harris points out without a hint of intended irony, "BR's 1990s privatisation could unleash a new generation of station properties into private ownership."

Among them are the 40,000 inherited by Railtrack when it took over the management of BR's operational infrastructure last April; the estate includes railway arches, signal boxes and 2,500 stations. Railtrack Property Ltd is now sprucing up marketable units (using taxpayers' money) and offering them on long commercial leases (to the benefit of private-sector investors.) Many of the 1,300 listed buildings would interest the trainspotter-in-residence.

Consider a Grade II listed station at Helli-field, on North Yorkshire's erstwhile Settle to Carlisle line. Though it's marketed as "offices, a themed restaurant or visitor centre", a suite of rooms on the first floor could be suitable for residential use. The recently restored station, built in 1880, occupies an island position between two operational lines, but Hellifield's daily schedule of trains ceases at around 9pm.

BR Property Board, meanwhile, continues to sell off non-operational sites. On 18 January, the Manchester and York office is selling 41 freehold properties at a major auction. But unless you have a hankering for a car park in Chester or 3.43 acres of residential development land next to Liverpool's Walton Junction, there is little among the lots to interest the railway romantic - other than two empty Victorian stations at Deepcar and Aspatria, suitable for residential conversion and in need of repair.

The line served by Deepcar Station closed 13 years ago and the property has been vandalised. But of the two lots, BR thinks this one will generate more interest in the saleroom because of its location close to Sheffield. Aspatria Station in Cumbria, on the other hand, is "on a road to nowhere" - or at least on a rural branch line wiggling south from Carlisle to Whitehaven.

Both properties could provide a sympathetic environment for showing off a collection of railwayana. That's what retired binman Ken Mills and his wife Jean had in mind when they acquired The Station House at Market Rasen in Lincolnshire. "We bought it because we like trains," says Ken. "It's as simple as that."

Trains plying the Lincoln to Grimsby line still lumber in and out of Market Rasen, where Mr and Mrs Mills set up home in the Grade II listed, single-storey dwelling, designed to house a 19th-century stationmaster's family. Apart from a new roof, modern kitchen and double-glazing, it has barely been altered.

With four bedrooms and a "huge" living- room to play with, the Mills hoped to create a museum of railway curios. Jean's poor health has forced them to sell up, but the £49,995 asking price (details from the Market Rasen branch of Halifax Property Services) does not include a single item of the Mills's collection.

If you yearn for resplendent railway relics displayed in situ, then drive south (there are no trains) to North Brentor in Devon. This tiny hamlet, on the western edge of Dartmoor National Park, must have been a livelier place in the 1890s when both the Great Western Railway and the London and South Western Railway ran parallel lines through this moorland backwater. The last GWR section train pulled out in 1962. Six years later the LSWR section was closed and the gritty granite station property was sold to private buyers.

When second owners, Mr and Mrs Jones and son Richard, took over Brentor 12 years ago, the two-storey house had lost most of its Victorian features. "Even the door-knobs were plastic," says Richard. Now they are brass. The paintwork is a rich railway green, matched to the original LSWR colour scheme. A ticket window opens on to the living-room like some off-beat serving hatch, and in the booking office Richard keeps a rack of cardboard tickets, a brass dating machine and a 1920s map of the Southern Railway network rescued from Barnstaple Junction.

The down platform, sheltered by a restored wooden canopy, has the look of a stage-set propped by period station trolleys and cast-iron benches. Two Brentor signs have been reinstated; so have the slate partitions in the gents urinal. The up-line waiting-room, on the other side of the lawned track, is packed with assorted railwayana. Any of these items can be included in the sale of property (£159,000 through Millersons of Tavistock) as negotiable extras.

Richard Jones, whose job as a police force administrator has forced the family to relocate, is "hardening himself" to the sale of the station and his 10-year-old collection of Southern Railway memorabilia. "I hope the new owner will want to buy all my bits and pieces. This is, after all, where they belong." In spirit maybe, but some of his cast-iron lamps came from Bridestowe, a few miles up the LSWR line.

The Station House at Bridestowe is for sale (through Millersons of Oakhampton) at £210,000. It has been altered and extended, but includes an up-line waiting-room (aka garden shed), a footbridge spanning the track (now lawned) and a ribbon of land over amile long.

Owner Nicky Bartlett maintains she's not interested in railways. "It's just a building to me. All these enthusiasts who come round with their cameras and questions are a pain in the neck." A third of her bed and breakfast guests are train buffs, and she has refused a number of tempting offers for an original BR crane which came with the engine shed when she bought the property. She won't be taking it with her.

Would these LSWR properties suit Chris Donald? Too far south, I think, but he is looking for another piece of railway history. "I used to play Monopoly," he says, "and I won't be happy until I've bought all four stations."