Exactly why an old railway carriage ended up in the garden of a cottage in Helmsley in the 1920s is something of a mystery but its arrival was certainly memorable. It turned up, minus its wheels, on the back of a flat-bed truck and was craned into place on top of a set of railway sleepers. Since then, properties have sprung up on the fields next to the site, sealing the carriage’s fate as a permanent fixture.
“There is no way you would be able to crane it in or out now. Everyone who sees it marvels at how it got here in the first place,” says owner Richard Craig.
The third-class carriage was built for the Great Northern Railway in 1887 and ran between York and Scarborough until it was decommissioned and sold. While many unwanted carriages went for scrap, a few were recycled by farmers as storage, which is probably why it ended up in the rural market town.
It has since been used by a painter and decorator, a greetings card business and as Richard’s office before being transformed into a luxurious holiday let. Its latest incarnation is thanks to Richard and his wife Louise, who inherited the third class compartment when they bought their 16th century home just off the market square.
The plan to revamp it came after they successfully converted the annexe next to their house into B&B accommodation. “Our sons had grown up and left home so we were wondering what to do with the extra space,” says Richard. “Louise is a people person who loves cooking, so we decided to give B&B a go. It went so well that we thought ‘let’s see if we can convert the railway carriage’. It is in a lovely spot in the garden.”
After securing planning permission for change of use from commercial to residential, the couple embarked on the challenge to turn the small space into a cosy, alternative retreat. The carriage is just 9m long, 2.1m wide and 1.9m high. To complicate matters, the roof is curved, the sides are bulbous and the structure leans slightly. After long discussions about the design and the fit-out, the couple hired an architect to do scale drawings. “Everything had to be to the exact millimetre so we could be sure everything fitted,” adds Richard.
“Fortunately we had a great joiner, Gary Dolan from Malton, who did an amazing job. It was very difficult mathematically because there are no straight lines in there at all. We levelled the floor in the bathroom and kitchen but in the bedroom it’s still slightly out so we had to saw the legs down at one end of the bunk beds.”
Craftsman joiner Gary was presented with a well-preserved carcass, beautifully built from teak with lots of original features, including slam doors and signs stating “no spitting or £5 fine” and “Mind the gap”.
Richard and Louise have been careful to preserve these, although the first job was to get water and gas installed. “There was electric in there and I relied on storage heaters when I used it as an office but we wanted to put in central heating, a kitchen and a wet room,” says Richard.
Local farmer Nigel Buckle excavated a trench for the water and drainage pipes outside, while inside Gary boxed in all the pipes so they were well hidden from view. The walls were packed with insulation to keep the heat in and the original sliding windows were refurbished to prevent draughts.
The interior was kept as open-plan as possible and now boasts a kitchen and a sitting area/master bedroom at one end, a wet room in the middle and a small second bedroom at the far end.
The kitchen units are bespoke and made by Gary, while the central island is an antique cabinet that he re-purposed. It holds the crockery and cutlery on one side and also acts as a work surface but hidden beneath is a compartment for a pop-up television.
“It’s a space-saving idea that makes the cabinet multi-functional, although the pop-up device was a fortune. It was twice the cost of the TV,” says Richard.
He and Louise also splashed out on a “Murphy” bed that folds onto the wall and is encased in a purpose-built cabinet. To compensate for the extra expense, they managed to make savings elsewhere. The £1,200 decorative, porcelain sink was a bargain at £50 on eBay. The glass shower screen was also sourced from the auction site.
The plush red sofa was a “donation” from friends and just about squeezed in through the 21-inch wide doors. The easy chair is from Oka.
“I had that chair for ages but it was quite expensive. Then I spotted it in the sale for half the price. I was thrilled,” says Louise.
Her mother, Eve, a gifted seamstress, made all the curtains and the pretty tablecloth that is topped with glass for practicality. The floors are covered in soft wool carpet and the lighting is a mix of B&Q ceiling lights that fit flush and antique paraffin lamps. The lamps were wired to take eco-friendly bulbs and they now throw a warm glow on to the colourful and cosy decor.
Outside, the carriage has just been repainted in its original GNR colours by local decorator Ian Wilson. Altogether, the conversion cost £30,000 and opened for business in August last year.
“It is a home from home and that’s what we wanted to create rather than a sterile box,” says Richard. “Everyone loves it. In fact, although there is a lot to see in the area, some guests are happy just to stay in. It’s such a different kind of space it feels like a real escape.
“We are really pleased. It was third class but now it’s five star.”
• For details on the railway carriage, visit www.gorgeouscottages.com