A COUPLE have just had the green signal to make an unusual home out of a redundant part of Settle station. Mark Holdstock reports. Pictures by Mike Cowling.
Are they ready for ethereal up here in the rugged and windy Dales? It’s what they are about to get at the historic railway station on the dramatic Settle to Carlisle line. It’s where Mark Rand and his wife Pat are now busy making their new home. It will be in an old water tower and tank beside the track and the inspiration for how they want it to look is an avant garde architect, one of the leaders of the Modernist movement on the Continent in the 1920s and 30s, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. “For the 1929 pavilion in Barcelona, Mies van der Rohe’s brief was to build something which was ‘ethereal’,” says Mark. “So we’re hoping that Settle’s ready for ‘ethereal’.”
You can see in your mind’s eye why he’s keen on this. A new top floor of the structure is to have two areas of patio at either end with 360 degree views over some of the most beautiful scenes in the country. “One way you’ve got the forest of Bowland, to the north you’ve got Penyghent, and the three peaks.”
A lift will be installed for all three of the new floors, so Mark and Pat will be able carry on living here even when mobility becomes more difficult with age.
“When you’ve got a big empty box, there is the opportunity to do such things as lifts reasonably cost effectively,” says Mark. “Shoving a lift into a building with existing floors is a deal more complicated.”
Pat says she’s thrilled by the prospect. “I’m very excited now something is actually happening. There were a lot of delays with the planning application, I just can’t wait to get it done.”
It was the desire to rescue a derelict building which gave Mark the idea. “If it’s to have an alternative use, then ‘house’ rather shouts at you because it’s a huge great square box, superbly built. Its walls, windows and roof were already there and it’s a relatively easy place to convert.” He paid £208,000 for the building and the full cost of conversion won’t be known until all the work is complete.
Mark and Pat are no strangers to historic buildings. The home they previously shared was a landmark in Settle called The Folly, which was built in 15th and 16th centuries. They owned the North End of The Folly which is now the museum of North Craven Life. They are staying in a modern seven-bedroom house in nearby Giggleswick belonging to their daughter, house-sitting until daughter and family move up to the area.
When the Midland Railway built the Settle to Carlisle line, the third major route through to Scotland in the 1870s, steam was king and the locos were thirsty beasts requiring their huge tenders to be filled at regular intervals. Eight water towers stood along the line to meet the needs of the engines. Now there’s only this one left. It’s a great stone-built block at the back of Settle station and on top is a square, cast iron tank. The Rands’ new home will be inside the water tower and the Mies van der Rohe influence will be evident in what is planned for the room on the roof in the iron tank.
“That tank has a capacity of 43,000 gallons and we reckon there’s still a hundred tons of cast iron up there, in the form of the tank and the girders that support it,” says Mark who nimbly climbs up, attached to a harness, for a spot of maintenance work. He’s already painted 72 square metal panels on the outside of the tank.
Until recently he was the chairman of the Friends of the Settle Carlisle Line. A retired chief superintendent of police, he served for many years in Bradford and says he’s been passionate about the Settle to Carlisle Railway since he was a boy.
He is also an old boy of Leeds Grammar school, just like the original designer of the water tower. “It was built in 1876. We’ve got the original plans of the thing from 1874, courtesy of Network Rail, signed by Samuel Waite Johnson, the locomotive superintendent of the day. Apparently water towers came under the locomotive department. It supplied a water crane at either end of Settle station and was presumably decommissioned at the end of steam, about 1968.”
Yorkshire-based architect Stuart Green is working on the design of the new home. “What we’ve been able to do is design and coordinate the elements we are installing in, on and around the tower,” he says. “We have been able to continue the same contemporary but utilitarian theme throughout the building.”
It was at the ideas stage that he introduced the thinking of Mies van der Rohe and specifically one of his best-known structures, the Barcelona Pavilion, built for an international exhibition in 1929. “I basically advised Mark that whatever goes up there should be very transparent and I referred him to the Barcelona Pavilion.”
The aim, says Stuart Green, is to give the rooftop building a feel of being horizontal, rather than vertical so that it seems to float above the tower.
“With the cantilevers and overhangs, the tower is quite a different set-up, but we wanted it to be as ‘ethereal’ as the Pavilion is. We’re really trying to keep the tradition of the water tower going on the roof as well, using as much glass as possible with hard raw steel instead of soft, painted aluminium.
“Our main drive is to keep the roof as thin as we can but this is really quite a challenge. The easiest way would be to use large steel sections with a standard build up of insulation and roof finish. It remains to be seen how we achieve this given the overhang and structural demands. Where the glass joins, we intend to have toggle fixings with a ‘capless’ free flush facade. Joints, where you put a cap on the outside, would emphasis the verticality which is not desired. We’d love to have a wall of glass if we could all the way round but need to have framed doors to achieve the weather rating.”
Mies van der Rohe had strong links to the Bauhaus movement which thrived in Germany under its founder, Walter Gropius, in the years before Hitler came to power. Like many of those involved with Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe fell out of favour with the Nazis and he left Germany for the United States where his reputation continued to grow.
Stuart Green’s colleague at his Hull company Commercial Systems International, Maarten Kleinhout, explains the German architect’s continuing appeal. “His architecture delivered free-flowing spaces, elegant structures and innovative use of materials such as glass, steel and stone which were exposed. His structures can appear to be flowing above the ground, solids become almost dematerialised. With today’s technology it is relatively easier to echo some of these qualities. The Victorian water tower with the proposed roof room in many ways replays the modernistic aspiration for freedom.”
It’s original builders would no doubt have been astonished at what the building is about to become, although they themselves were innovators of sorts. The tower’s water supply cunningly came from a couple of miles away in Stainforth, a more elevated location, so the tank could be gravity-fed. Taking on water had to be a slick operation to minimise delay to the train. A gauge on the outside of the tank allowed the signalman to judge whether the height of the water was adequate for it to come out fast enough and in sufficient quantities to fill the engine tender quickly.
The stone box on which the iron tank sits was empty. “As designed it was just fresh air,” says Mark. “ It was an elaborate stone windowed structure, built with the sole purpose of holding 43,000 gallons up in the air. In 1939, stables were built inside it for four carthorses – we know this because the builders in May 1939 left a note. The thinking was that motor spirit, if war broke out, was going to be in short supply and the cart horse by then hadn’t by any means had its day.
“We’re putting two floors inside the tank building, a ground floor and a first floor. Then on top of the tank, inside the tank and peeping over the top of it, will be a roof room. With heritage issues in mind, this room is set back from the edge so as not to be seen. One of the devices we’re using is to re-instate railings round the top of the tank which also adds height to the thing visually.”
The water tower is close to the entrance of Settle station but the Rands are happy that they’ll still have plenty of privacy. “The lie of the land actually means that it is quite secluded,” says Mark.
“There’s about a third of an acre of ground with it. We can sit just about anywhere within it and see, or not be seen, by any of the passing traffic or people. When we lived at The Folly in Settle it was a tourist attraction so we were quite used to people peering in the windows.”
During the days of steam, the water tower wasn’t that heavily used because it’s on a gradient of 1-in-100 and if trains were northbound there was a risk they couldn’t get going again. It was easier for them to use the supply at Hellifield. The later installation of water troughs at Garsdale, where a scoop is lowered from the tender to allow engines to refill at speed, also reduced the need for the fast trains to make time-consuming stops.
The racket from today’s passing trains won’t be a problem for the Rands. “Train noise is referred to locally as music,” says Mark. “A planning permission condition is that we have to list what steps we are taking to mitigate train noise – and the short answer is none. To be honest it’s intermittent. And now that the track has been replaced all the way from Carlisle with no joints, it’s quiet. The minimal road noise is louder than the train noise.”
Now that the planning permission has come through, the builders expect it to take three to four months. The principle has been approved but the detailed design still has to be signed off by the planners and until then Mark won’t know what the total cost is for the iron tank part of the building. The the rest of the conversion work is expected to be less than £100,000.
“We’re both thrilled and surprised to have the opportunity to do this,” says Mark. “Ever since I clapped eyes on it – which was some decades ago – I thought ‘that building needs a coat of tender loving care’, never dreaming that it was our good selves who were going to have to give it.”
Pat adds: “I’ve lived in some strange places before, so it’s just a different one. When we lived at The Folly in Settle that was a very old house, very different, not an easy house to live in. I’m really looking forward to this one which is going to be very luxurious.”