With plans for the development of Whitwell Station under fire from nearby residents and the horse-riding community, the property’s owner says the site’s assets must be used to their maximum to enable the railway to survive and prosper.
Whitwell & Reepham Station opened in 1882 and was closed in 1959, the track-bed being used as part of the Marriott’s Way long-distance footpath in 1993.
Having been identified as a possible location for a travellers’ site, local businessman and rail enthusiast Mike Urry bought the derelict site in 2007, forming the Whitwell & Reepham Railway Preservation Society, with aims to restore the station, re-lay track and set up a railway museum. The station was reopened in February 2009.
The society now wants to re-lay track on the Marriott’s Way to enable disabled and elderly passengers to board the heritage diesel and steam trains at one of the original station platforms.
A revised planning application has been submitted which provides for a “traffic light” warning system, with all train movements to be publicised on the website. A two-metre high wired mesh fence would also be fitted along the entire length of the new track alongside the Marriott’s Way.
Whitwell Station said it is working closely on these plans with Norfolk County Council, which owns the footpath/bridleway.
Mr Urry said that, in recent months, very few horses came past the station, pointing out that existing parts of Marriott’s Way are narrower than the gap proposed for the space between the track and the opposite platform. “And to be honest, cyclists are often a bigger problem to other users of the footpath than horses,” he said.
Whitwell Station has also applied to extend the premises licence to midnight on Friday and Saturday evenings to cater for the growing number of private functions.
In particular, the Station has rapidly become a wedding venue, offering a whole package including arriving on a steam train, a wedding breakfast in The Sidings function room and the ceremony in the old station building, as well as the evening function.
With the permanent “marquee” now completed, 13 weddings have already been booked this year, as well as several 50th birthday parties and a high school reunion (the current premises licence will only permit late closing on up to 15 nights a year).
Mr Urry stressed that the permanent midnight licence on Fridays and Saturdays would only be used for special events, adding that the functions business had evolved in recent years based on demand from the public and from society members.
“We do understand our neighbours’ concerns and will work with the district council to monitor noise if needed. We will also do everything possible to mitigate noise to whatever level is required.
“We just need everyone to be reasonable. I am more than happy to meet with residents and local representatives to discuss how we can move forward on this issue.”
Besides weddings, the list of events being held at Whitwell Station is growing. It already hosts Reepham & District Photographic Club, Whitwell Station Theatrical Society, Reepham Young Farmers Club and Swing & Lindy Hop lessons, as well as holding regular classic car, kit car and hot rod evenings, beer festivals, a 1940s weekend, an annual steam rally, an annual model railway show, and Halloween and New Year’s Eve parties.
In addition, there are the monthly Steam Sundays, an Easter Egg Hunt at Easter and the popular Santa Specials at Christmas; Whitwell Station has also been the main sponsor of the Reepham Music Festival for the past five years.
Meanwhile, the hugely successful Friday “bikers nights” appear to have the support and involvement of the police. “We do everything we can to encourage safe, responsible motorcycle riding and for bikers to be considerate to our neighbours when arriving and departing,” said Mr Urry.
The Station also offers bicycle hire and has a small campsite for five caravans, motorhomes or tents. The latest culinary development is to offer fine dining for special occasions, and there are plans to convert one of the railway carriages into a restaurant car with an à la carte menu.
Mr Urry explained that running a heritage railway is a hugely expensive business. “The key thing is that we are now trying to use all our assets to generate money to maintain it and develop it further,” he said.
“It is important that businesspeople are involved to manage and run railway preservation societies – not just well-meaning enthusiasts, who may have little or no commercial experience.”
Mr Urry, who has invested around £500,000 of his own money in the purchase of the site and the construction of the function room, said it was a schoolboy dream to own and run a railway.
Three local people are now employed; everyone else is a volunteer and “no one has taken any money out of the railway – myself included”, Mr Urry stressed. “Whitwell Station brings a lot of money into Reepham.”
He added that the current length of track is not sufficient to keep railway enthusiasts coming back, “so we need to extend the line. We have a long-term desire to go somewhere.”
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