How the Railway Heritage Trust is bringing forgotten parts of Yorkshire's old stations back to life for a new generation of travellers

Until World War Two, railway stations were almost like miniature towns, with a range of facilities serving passengers, from restaurants to waiting rooms to extensive ticket offices and parcel storage..

Knaresborough Station's space is now fully let to retail and hospitality tenants for the first time in memory
Knaresborough Station's space is now fully let to retail and hospitality tenants for the first time in memory

Yet over time, many of these spaces built for the needs of a Victorian railway system were left empty, eventually to fall into disrepair.

The railway estate included numerous former refreshment rooms, parcels offices and ticket halls - as well as structures such as signal boxes - that managers struggled to let to new tenants or simply could not find a use for as operations became more automated and staff numbers reduced.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Fewer people wanted to dine in Art Nouveau style in the platform buffets, travellers could buy their tickets in advance, and passengers carried far less luggage. The parcels service virtually ground to a halt as the traffic moved onto the roads instead.

Platform pub York Tap used to be a model railway shop, and was originally an Art Nouveau-style tearoom

In 1985, British Rail realised that something needed to be done to repurpose these superfluous buildings - and the Railway Heritage Trust was formed to bring them back to life. Funded mainly by Network Rail, with some support from Highways England, they advise on the preservation of historic features and protect the future of listed structures such as footbridges. Train operating companies source tenants to run a new generation of platform cafes and taprooms at the stations they manage before approaching the Railway Heritage Trust to ensure conversions and restorations are undertaken sympathetically.

The latest success story in Yorkshire is the letting of a former waiting room at Knaresborough Station to Gorilla Bros, a craft brewery whose owners already run one venue, the Rockingham Tap in Swinton, and will open their second bar, meaning the station's retail units will be fully occupied for the first time in memory.

Gorilla Bros have worked with the Railway Heritage Trust's executive director Andy Savage to restore and retain original features such as fireplaces, while others have been recalibrated to suit the new taproom's needs - old cupboards have become toilets. The project even involved the installation of central heating on the platforms for the first time.

It is one of a number of projects Andy is proud of, with other 'marquee' conversions including the transformation of York Station's old Edwardian restaurant from a rundown model railway shop into the York Tap, and the goods shed into the Jubilee Refreshment Rooms at Sowerby Bridge.

The Jubilee Refreshment Rooms at Sowerby Bridge occupy the station's old goods shed

"Knaresborough is a nice station, and it was a complete surprise when I visited - the old waiting room had been a shell but it will be finished in two months, which is a remarkable turnaround. We have a good track record with pubs, having worked on the York Tap and Sheffield Tap, and Gorilla Bros have done a superb job.

"I always say we're a business with surplus space, not a museum, so heritage features are there to serve the railway. It's not about preserving them - they've got to have a function."

Filey was an approach 'which came out of nowhere' after Northern suddenly found a tenant to re-open the old tearoom around a decade since it last traded - despite the seaside town's station only having one stopping train per hour in each direction.

A revival is also underway at Scarborough, where a parcels office found itself disused and ended up deteriorating significantly.

The bar at the new Gorilla Bros taproom at Knaresborough is made from old railway sleepers

"Scarborough Station expanded a lot over time, all the way through to the 1930s, and it was always very busy with excursion trains, so the parcels office was just outside. Once parcels traffic disappeared, it was just rotting away, the roof was collapsing and it was full of dead pigeons.

"A group of local artists raised money to restore the roof and it has been a big win for the railway and for us. Covid has delayed it but it will soon re-open as an art studio."

While there have been some repurposings that have struggled to remain commercially viable - such as the community space in the old ticket office at Hull Paragon - there are examples of entire stations having been rescued from uncertainty, such as Moorthorpe near Pontefract, which had been unstaffed since the 1980s and had become semi-derelict before the parish council took it over and opened a cafe, meeting room and offices.

"We are becoming far more of a cafe society now. We have just worked on a new coffee bar at Cottingham Station and the tenant is interested in Bridlington too. We've also done a lot of work on the Settle to Carlisle line, and the toilets at Ribblehead are next on the list."

Other quirkier upcoming projects include a major overhaul at Keighley involving a much-anticipated restoration of the water tower.

Challenges remain in finding new homes for a large number of signal boxes due to be retired from service as signalling becomes fully automated, and the fate of listed footbridges in the age of accessiblity and electrification is a thorn in Andy's side.

"A third of the boxes are listed, but if they are too close to the tracks there are limits to what we can do with them and we can't lease them out. We can't keep all of them, so some will be knocked down, but we've got to find places for the listed ones to go, such as heritage lines.

"Footbridges are a nightmare. We are under pressure to replace them for wheelchair access, and with electrification they now have to be higher and they must have solid sides. We have these beautiful Victorian bridges, but there is no use for them now, and they're just as inaccessible on a heritage railway.

"We can't scrap the listed ones and there isn't a giant museum we can just take them to. It's an ongoing problem."