Norfolk home: restored railway signal box in Melton Constable
PUBLISHED: 16:15 27 March 2018 | UPDATED: 16:15 27 March 2018
What do you do with a ruined old railway signal box? Turn it into a fantastic holiday lodge, of course. Tony Hall finds out more
Melton Constable in north Norfolk has had a long association with the railway, particularly in its heyday when it was referred to as the Crewe Junction of Norfolk, with lines from Kings Lynn, Norwich, Cromer, Fakenham, Yarmouth and Lowestoft all converging there. Considering the very rural location of the village, how did this come about?
In 1880 The Lynn and Fakenham Railway Act authorised the construction of a railway from Fakenham to Norwich via Melton Constable. There was a desire among north Norfolk landowners, notably Lord Hastings of Melton Constable Hall, to break the East Anglian monopoly of The Great Eastern Railway.
The village grew from a population of 118 in 1881 to 1,157 by 1911. The construction of a railway locomotive works and junction transformed the parish and to attract workers to this rural location the railway company constructed housing. The first street, Melton Street, was built in 1882 and others followed. Sadly the Melton works shut in 1936 and the line closed to passengers in April, 1964.
It is therefore very fitting that a signal box, now fully restored, has been returned close to this location of railway history. My good friend John Barnes, entrepreneur and property developer, spotted that the signal box, which had been at Dereham Station but was subsequently moved to a garden in Mattishall to be used as a studio, was up for sale by auction. Having a farm near Melton Constable which was on the disused Yarmouth to Kings Lynn line, John thought it a fitting new location for this piece of railway history.
He had already converted both the farmhouse and several barns on the farm, which I have featured over the years, so he was delighted to buy it and then transport it to its new location. He said at the time; “I will be able to return it to its home next to a railway track [disused]. It will be fantastic to sit there and enjoy the panoramic country views out of the huge glass windows.” Fortunately, John was just able to see the signal box fully restored before he died in January 2017.
Chris Wake, the new owner, takes up the story. “My wife Polly and I were living in Eastgate near Cawston, but we had been there some time and wanted a detached property. We saw a holiday barn advertised which attracted our attention. It was one of those that John Barnes had converted on his farm.
“Although it had only one bedroom, he had already applied for, and been granted, planning permission to enlarge. We then applied for the holiday restriction to be removed and when everything was in place, we bought Lavender Cottage in 2014.”
Chris was born in West London. His parents moved to Wymondham when he was a year old and his father worked for Lotus Cars and his mother worked in a pharmacy. On leaving school Chris went to work straight away, in sales and deliveries for a wholesale gourmet food company. In 1996 he met Polly, who was originally from Bristol, but had lived at Drayton from the age of four. They went on holidays together and learnt to scuba dive in the Dominican Republic. “That really was a pivotal point in life,” recalls Chris. “Soon after I returned there to do a diving course, as an entry level professional.”
After several years working abroad in dive centres in locations such as Spain, Bermuda and the Seychelles, they returned to the UK and set up Christal Seas Scuba, a scuba diving centre in purpose-built premises and an on-site swimming pool for dive training in Whiffler Road, Norwich.
“As the signal box was in the next plot to the enlarged land we bought from John Barnes,” continues Chris, “we asked John if he was interested in selling off the signal box with its surrounding land. He agreed. We then worked with North Norfolk District Council to agree building permission and regs for restoration.
“Once complete, we gradually stripped off all the rotten timber and restored it to the original, but with the added benefit of bespoke double-glazed windows and a gas stove. Initially we intended it just as overspill for friends and family, but such has been the interest we have now put it with Norfolk Country Cottages for holiday rental and have been totally blown away by the overwhelming response.”
“I think it’s so popular,” says Polly, “as it’s very quirky, in quiet lovely countryside, with great wildlife, in the middle of nowhere, but very close to Holt for the shopping. We also are popular with birders as the coast is not far away.
“There are several great local pubs and restaurants nearby. We allow pets and there are some fantastic local walks, with over three miles of nothingness on paths around the farm. Our favourite room has to be the main living/dining space, with 270 degree views, whilst a favourite item is the trunk, an original.
“Further afield, a favourite pub of ours is the Dun Cow at Salthouse, for the lovely garden that overlooks the saltmarshes. We like going diving at Weybourne where 150m yards off shore there is the Rosalie, a First World War shipwreck.
“Our most memorable moments here in Norfolk are diving there, off the beach as the sun goes down and walking through the rhododendrons in Sheringham Park when in full bloom in June.
“After all our travels abroad over the years, we are finally settled, doing a job we both enjoy and living in a special corner of Norfolk.”
Owners: Polly and Chris Wake.
Property: A signal box.
Location: Melton Constable.
Bought: By John Barnes 2010 and Chris and Polly Wake 2015.
Moved in: 2017.
Professions: Chris and Polly own and run Norfolk scuba diving centre Christal Seas Scuba.
Previous home: Eastgate, Norfolk.
Favourite room: “Our favourite room has to be the main living/dining, with 270 degree views.”
Favourite item: “The trunk, an original.”
Favourite interiors shop: Keys Auctions.
Favourite part of the county: “We like going diving at Weybourne where 150m yards off shore there is the Rosalie, a World War One ship wreck.”
Favourite day out: “Walking through the rhododendrons in Sheringham Park when in full bloom in June.”
Most memorable moment in Norfolk: “Our most memorable moments here in Norfolk are diving at Weybourne, off the beach as the sun goes down.”
Favourite walk: “Three miles of nothingness on paths around the farm.”
Favourite pub: “Dun Cow at Salthouse, for the lovely garden that overlooks the saltmarshes.”
The Signal Box is available for holiday lettings: contact Norfolk Country Cottages
The Old Crab Shop, Holt. 01263 715779, firstname.lastname@example.org, norfolkcottages.co.uk
This feature is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend John Barnes, entrepreneur and property developer, 1964-2017. Written and produced by Tony Hall, tonyhalleyepix.com