Miles Kington: The railway station garden that set a rival village apart

Monday 17 September 2007 00:00 BST

Do neighbouring villages always have a mutual rivalry? I can remember that the Denbighshire village of Gresford where I started to grow up had a healthy mistrust of neighbouring Llay. Don't know why. We were both, in essence, just Welsh mining villages.

Still, at least Gresford had a bit of class: we were on the road to somewhere (Chester) and Llay was on the back road to nowhere, and we had a station on the main Great Western Railway line at which trains actually stopped, whereas I don't think they knew what a train was in Llay.

The same, oddly enough, with the Wiltshire village I now live in. The railway line from Bath to Weymouth passes us but our station is closed, unlike that of neighbouring Freshford (in Somerset) which is where we have to go if we want to catch a train. What really makes Freshford Station stand out from similar rural stations is – or was, for a long time – its garden. The station had been adopted by a family of elderly sisters called Vaisey (daughters of the late village doctor), who went there every week to plant, water, weed and tidy the flower beds which ran alongside the platform from which the Bath trains left.

In summer it was a great display. In autumn nature took over and decorated the station with elderberries, blackberries and profuse horse chestnuts, but summer was the station garden party. Finally the garden fell into desuetude, not just because the Vaisey ladies were getting older and less active, but also because they were being thwarted by nature and officialdom.

"The badgers are getting bolder these days," one of them told me once, "and they've started eating the flowers. It's hard to beat a hungry badger. We have also been told that if we want to continue gardening on the platform, we may have to wear orange jackets and safety helmets. I don't see why we should do anything so ridiculous. It's not as if they asked the passengers to put on fancy dress."

And so the gardens gradually faded, and reverted to a scrubby patch of land behind the platform, and the only sign of horticultural care on the part of Network Rail occurred last year when they sent teams out on the stretch between Freshford and our village, Limpley Stoke, to cut down every tree they could see, and turn a wildlife sanctuary full of oaks and ash, deer and foxes, buzzards and jays, into something so grim and lifeless that every time I try to describe it, I have to check on the spelling of Passchendaele.

I do not know what the surviving Vaisey sisters thought of this massacre, but they must have been tickled pink when a committee of Freshford folk decided this year to commemorate their old efforts by restoring the garden within the station.

They replanted the garden area with flowers and a few shrubs. They tidied it all up again. They even put up a plaque made from shiny metal with the words "The Freshford Station Gardens open on July 26 2007 are a tribute to the Vaisey sisters who lovingly tended a garden on this site for many years" inscribed on it, and had a most moving reopening ceremony a month or two back, which went very well, even if, apparently, a passing express train blew over most of the bottles, glasses and wine waiting for the village dignitaries.

But Network Rail were not defeated yet. A week or two later they sent another team armed with strimmers and chain saws along the line who went into Freshford Station and carefully cut down every flower and shrub that had been planted on Freshford Station in honour of the Vaisey sisters, leaving it much as Passchendaele station must have looked after General Haig had been that way.

You couldn't make it up. I am told by people in Freshford that Network Rail have admitted responsibility, and agreed to compensate the next round of replanting, but they have also said to me that it has so far gone quite unreported, and it would be nice to have the episode recorded before it is forgotten by history.

I am happy to oblige.

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