The romance of a railway home

imageFor one couple renovating a train station was a labour of love, finds Jake Wallis Simons.

It all started in Victorian times. “One of my forebears was the stationmaster of King’s Cross Station,” says Anna Gudge. “It was a prestige job in those days. He used to wear a top hat and tails, and roll out the red carpet for the Queen. He became a big part of family folklore.”

Anna never learnt her ancestor’s name, but she certainly inherited his passion for railways. She grew up in the Fifties, in a house beside the old Cavendish station in Suffolk, and her childhood was filled with steam trains. “When I was five or six, I made friends with the stationmaster next door and his wife,” she says. “I would spend hours sitting in the signal box helping him change the points .” His wife would bring them “weak tea and biscuits”, she recalls; then she would “toddle home again”.

After Anna was married in 1968, she and her husband moved into a disused level crossing house just down the line from her childhood home. “It was a tiny two-up-two-down, with a bathroom tacked on to the back,” she recalls. “It was cramped, but also idyllic.” This was a prelude for what was to come. Years later, in October 1994, Anna and her new partner Mark spent £100,000 on an entire 1865 railway station – Long Melford, two stops down from Cavendish – to convert into a family home.

Although Anna had never visited the station before, she remembered seeing it from the train window when she travelled to London with her father. The last train had departed in 1967. A rudimentary conversion had then been carried out and the property had been used as a bus station and a kennel for greyhounds.

By the time Anna and Mark arrived, it was derelict. “We had to do a complete slash and burn of the garden,” says Anna. “Half the tiles were missing from the roof, and it smelled awful.”

The property comprised the station building itself, a platform with a set of waiting rooms, and the gap where the train tracks used to be, in which a bizarre attempt had been made to install a swimming pool. But this had never been completed and was “a nasty, black puddle”.

To Anna and Mark, this was a dream come true. “The potential just sang at us,” says Anna. “We knew it would be enormous fun.” They moved in almost straight away and threw a bonfire party on the old train tracks, fuelling the flames with the boxes they had used for packing. The following morning, their first granddaughter was born.

The couple embarked on a stage-by-stage renovation of the entire property. The gully where the tracks used to run had been filled with rubble; they added topsoil and cultivated a lawn. They cleaned out the swimming pool, modernised it, and got it going. They rebuilt the roof, restored old walls that had been knocked down, and raised the ceilings back to their original height. Finally, it was time for the interiors.

“We wanted to maintain the feel of the railway station,” says Mark, “but at the same time it had to be homely. We wanted memorabilia, but not a museum.”

After some soul searching, they decided to leave the coal soot on the walls. “People always said we should get it sandblasted,” says Anna, “but we thought, ‘No! No! No!’ It’s all part of the history.”

Anna’s connection with stationmasters continued. “The sitting room floor still bore the marks of his hobnail boots,” she says, “and grooves where his chair was pushed around.” Many of the original features had been removed, but they managed to restore them with the judicious use of eBay; Mark managed to get hold of several original signs, as well as an old platform weighing scales.

The walls were perhaps the most evocative feature. In addition to the soot, many still had graffiti dating back to Victorian times.

“We had a plasterer in to help with the ceilings,” says Anna, “and it turned out that his father had been the station’s last porter. He found a bit of wall where his father had written the name of his mother – when she was just his girlfriend – alongside a heart with an arrow through it.”

For 17 years, Long Melford Station was the centre of Anna and Mark’s family life. In the summer, children would play football on the lawn and swim in the pool. In the evenings, they would have barbecues between the platforms. “We found a vinyl record from the Fifties which had an audio recording of the station,” says Mark. “You could hear the trains puffing past, people talking and walking about. We’d play it outside when we had our barbecues.”

It was a sociable place to live – every so often somebody would knock on the door to share memories of the station.

Now, however, the couple has reached the end of the line. Long Melford Station is currently on the market for £495,000 (; 01787 883144). It includes a three-bedroom station house, annexed office space on Platform Two, a garden and a swimming pool.

“Of course there will be some broken-hearted sobbing as we go down the road for the last time,” says Anna. “But we’re the sort of people who like to look forward to something new.”

Mark has a passion for Neolithic archaeology, and the couple are planning to move to Orkney where “if you scratch the ground, it bleeds archaeology”. Their children are sad about the move – their granddaughter is particularly upset – but they are excited about visiting them. “We have 17 years of memories tied up with the old station,” says Anna, “but the time has come to move on.” All change.

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