This 19th-century stationmaster’s house took years to restore but the results are well worth it.
Tony Brook and his family do things differently. During the week they live in a converted pub near London Fields, and at the weekends they decamp to a refurbished stationmaster’s house deep in the Derbyshire Dales. One day they might live in an anonymous suburban semi, but don’t hold your breath.
Almost all the work to both properties was done by Tony, a buyer for the London Architectural Salvage and Supply Company (LASSCO). And unsurprisingly there are clear similarities between the two, both in terms of the high quality of the work and the overarching ambition. ‘I like to strip buildings back to their bones; to make the most of their dimensions,’ says Tony.
The Royal Oak came first. Tony and Reed bought the large Victorian pub in 1995, and set about removing decades of accumulated grime to create a voluminous family home, complete with ground level studio apartment and beer cellar. At the stationmaster’s house in Cromford, which they acquired in 2003, the challenge was to strip out the insensitive alterations of a quick-fix developer and restore the Victorian folly to its former glory. The witty, homely and beautifully finished result draws heavily on the building’s unusual history.
The stationmaster’s house, which resembles a miniature French château, was built in 1855 as the defining feature of the recently upgraded railway station at Cromford, a village on the River Derwent. Back then, Cromford was dominated by the legacy of Richard Arkwright, the inventor and entrepreneur credited with starting the Industrial Revolution. In 1771, Arkwright moved to Cromford and constructed a spinning mill, enabling him to produce industrial quantities of strong cotton. He also built a large factory, which became the model for factories all over the industrial world. Today it is a World Heritage Site.
From the mid-1780s, the wealthy industrialist earmarked some of his profits for the construction of a home. The outcome was Willersley Castle, an imposing pile on the north-eastern edge of the village. But Arkwright never lived there. He died in 1792, before it was finished, leaving his sons Richard and Peter to enjoy the fruits of his labour.
The house is a treasure trove of railway memorabilia. Framed copies of the Railway Magazine from 1943 are a focal point. Outside, the house resembles a French château. When the railway arrived in 1849, the main St Pancras-Manchester Central line passed through the back of the Willersley estate, hence Cromford Station became the point of arrival for many of their weekend guests. A few years later, when station improvements were mooted, the brothers contributed to the cost of the additions, ensuring that the station made a suitably grand impression. A rear extension was added in 1911.
The stationmaster’s house served two functions: as the entrance lodge to Willersley Castle a five-minute walk away, and as the stationmaster’s home. Both the stationmaster’s house and neighbouring waiting room were designed by G H Stokes, son-in-law of Joseph Paxton, designer of the Crystal Palace. At the time the pair were also working on the Château de Ferrières, near Paris, for Baron Rothschild (completed 1859), an experience that exposed them to the prevailing winds of European architectural trends. This probably explains why the buildings were dressed in 19th-century French finery, although there is an alternative suggestion: that Cromford was part of an aborted sequence of stations built in different European styles.
Matlock Spa, the next station along, is in the style of a Swiss chalet, a reference to the Victorian nickname for the area – the ‘Switzerland of England’. As might be expected, the best way to approach the stationmaster’s house is by rail. Today the station is in semi-retirement. It is one of the small towns and villages linked by the Derby-Matlock branch line – only five or six shuttle trains stop there daily. A Thirties advert for Players cigarettes first alerts the senses that Cromford is not just any old station. This enamel panel is attached to the side of a fine limestone waiting room, unusual for its tiled clock tower and steel latticework windows. But only once you are standing on the platform does the full majesty of the stationmaster’s house standing beyond it become clear. The house, raised on a steep incline to the north, is accessed via a private rail bridge, which leads you along the redundant platform and past the disused waiting room.
Turning left, a triangular patch of garden sits like a green bib in front of the miniature but perfectly proportioned 19th-century château, complete with steep tiled roof and Beaux Arts symmetry. The entrance, to the side of the building, leads into the hallway that offers the first indications of Tony and Reed’s design strategy. Although far from train buffs, they have used Tony’s business connections to source original posters and fixtures from the rail industry, creating a distinctive and humorous finish that never crosses the line into anorak territory. For instance, the coat rack in the entrance lobby is a converted baggage rack, large wooden toy trains decorate the dining room, and weathered oak floor boards were sourced from old SNCF goods. Tony painted the basic units green and stained the wooden worktop mahogany to match the railway insignia’s traditional British colours. Model trains, picked up at antiques fairs in Swinderby and Newark, adorn several spots around the house. Tony put in a wood-burning stove and stone hearth to make this light-filled dining room feel like cosy carriages. ‘When we bought the place it felt really dark and claustrophobic,’ says Tony. ‘Although the ground level includes a kitchen, sitting room, dining room and toilet, none of them could be described as generous. So we stripped everything out, and tried to make as much of the space as possible, and to let light into every corner. We also got rid of the plastic door frames, and came up with a much more appropriate colour scheme,’ says Tony
A similar approach was applied upstairs, where there are two double bedrooms, a single bedroom and a bathroom. The major alterations were the insertion of underfloor heating and new roof insulation. The only work that Tony and Reed paid for was for the floorboards to be laid and a fee for ‘John the Decorator’, a friend who travelled up from London with the family on weekends when his services were required. Aside from that, Tony did everything himself. It took three years to complete the work. ‘If we’d been here full-time it would have taken a lot less,’ says Tony. ‘But I basically had about a day-and-a-half a week to give to it. Even so, I didn’t think it would take so long.’ After a while the weekly treadmill of travelling from east London to Cromford was beginning to lose its appeal. ‘It was such a relief to actually finish the building, so that we could come up to enjoy it, rather than work on it,’ says Tony. Not that young Harvey had ever been inconvenienced. To a nine-year-old, the paved beer garden at the Royal Oak didn’t hold quite the same appeal as the large back garden, woodland and treehouse at the stationmaster’s house. For him the weekends were always a pleasure. Tony and Reed never set out to buy a weekend house in Derbyshire. It just sort of happened. ‘I first read about it in 2000, when it was advertised in an auction catalogue.
It stood out because it was so unusual, not only because it was a French-style stationmaster’s house, but because of its location. We weren’t looking for anything at the time. We had our hands full with the pub. But we were visiting friends in the area, so we came by to have a look anyway,’ says Tony. It looked great from the outside, but the sitting tenant wouldn’t let them inside, so they let the idea drop. Three years later, the same friends alerted Tony and Reed to the resale of the property. And this time they got their hands on it. ‘I think it was destiny,’ says Tony. Future plans did include converting the waiting room – which featured on the cover of Oasis’s 1995 single ‘Some Might Say’ – into a guesthouse, for which they have planning permission, but the prospect now awaits a new owner. The fever for a new challenge has struck, so Tony and Reed have their eyes peeled for another property to convert. ‘I think I’ve got one big job left in me,’ says Tony. The only question is: what will he find next? The house, and detached waiting room with planning permission to convert into a holiday cottage, is for sale. In the bedroom, the mirror above the tin model train is from a slam door train and bears a British Rail symbol and the poster on the stairs is an original which promoted the London, Midland and Scottish line that the house stands on.
Words: Adam Mornement Photography: Elizabeth Zeschin
Architect: Haysom Ward Miller Architects www.haysomwardmiller.co.uk
Contractor: Salisbury Bros 01449 740 515
Windows: PC Vinduer og Døre 020 7486 0631
Plasters, paints and insulation: Natural Building Technologies www.natural-building.co.uk
Timber floor finishes: Eva Johnson www.evajohnson.com
Kitchenware: Green Building Store www.greenbuildingstore.co.uk
Ironmongery: Allgood www.allgood.co.uk
Woodburner: HWAM www.hwam.com