Chapter 12 – The Old Station
In which we consider a new enterprise…
The old railway station at Grove Ferry had been empty quite a while, and was starting to show signs of neglect. Birds nested under the eaves and sycamore seedlings sprang up in front of the doors and windows. It was a mess, but it had great potential.
Mum and Dad’s old business at Westgate had not been going well in the year since Tadorna’s refit, and we wondered if we might begin a new life at Grove Ferry. Our idea was to set up a boating business based at the old station. There was a fair packet of land to go with it, and mooring rights along the northern bank for some distance. We could do boat repairs, run the moorings, have a fleet of dinghies for hire, maybe sell bait and tackle for fishing – there were all sorts of possibilities, and we made enquiries to see if the railway authorities would rent the building to us.
It took more than six months to get a reply, but at last we were told that, yes, we could have the house. We were thrilled and began to make definite plans. It was late spring, and we saw ourselves moving in by late summer. Our house in Westgate was put on the market and we submitted plans for the new business – the Old Station Marina, we called it, hopefully.
And so we came out to Grove one day and looked at it anew, as a business proposition. I have to admit it didn’t look much at a glance. We turned in at the station gateway, bumped up the rough roadway past the house, and pulled in proudly on the gravelly patch at the end of the garden. Across the river, Peggy was lying peacefully at her moorings, neat and tidy, while a wren sang from the wall behind her. The idea that such a sight and sound could become an everyday thing, seen each morning, was more delightful than I can express.
We looked at the station moorings, heavily overgrown despite attempts to take them in hand on the part of the boat owners. Dad glared at the nettle clumps. ‘It could,’ he ventured, ‘be just like the Thames!’
We agreed, unlikely as it seemed, and imagined elegant lawns running down to the water. There would have to be a slipway, of course, and we paced about deciding the best site for it, tripping up on brambles and getting stung. The Thames-side vision had faded quite a bit by the time we staggered back to the path.
The station garden, which had once been a well-cultivated vegetable patch, was an awful tangle after a couple of years’ neglect. There were tall grasses, hogweeds and brambles artlessly mixed with cabbages and lupins run wild, and a big untidy rosebush rambling along the fence with abandon. The whole lot was rampaging over the garden, stretching out roots and shoots through the containing fence rails so they seemed fit to burst. There was a lot of work to be done.
The station house itself was equally neglected. It was built of red brick and a grey slate roof with little gables. The gutters were full of sparrows’ nests, the straw and hay spilling over here and there and hanging down in streamers. There was live grass growing in the guttering, too. All the paintwork was done over in dismal railway green-and-cream. The downstairs windows were heavily boarded, and had been since the departure of the last station-master, and the main door was firmly locked. But we had the keys.
Inside it was pitch black, gloomy and airless until the double doors onto the platform were open. A dazzling slab of light fell in and all was revealed. This was the old waiting room, and destined to become the centre of operations for our new business. A train came thundering through the station as we stood in the doorway, and the whole house jumped and rattled from floorboards to roof slates. The sudden rush of wind through the open door sent all the dust flying, and we all went spluttering out onto the platform until it settled, leaving its strong, indefinable railway smell on our clothes and hands.
Upstairs, the house was quite something else. There was a separate door to the station-master’s living quarters. It had a huge scrubby elder bush growing over it, but we pushed through and went in. The stair treads creaked as we went up, and we came out on the landing by a little dormer window.
The flat was small, only four rooms and none of them large, but it was full of light. The main living room lay on the east side, and was completely bare, with only a battered fireplace in the middle of the inner wall. But none of us noticed – we could only stand and gape at the vast eastern view from the window. All down the old Wantsum Channel to Ebbsfleet we could see, right across the marshes and almost to the sea. It was breathtaking; in the mornings the sun would flood this room with light.
The kitchen was tiny and hopelessly inadequate, thick with oily grime. The dust motes flew as Janet and I looked into the room that would be our shared bedroom. I just stood in amazement and stared out of the window. The view was incomparable. I saw the gleam of the river, the green turf fields, marshy pastures and reedbeds, all stretching away up the valley. It was an even finer prospect than the eastern view from the living room. I stared and stared, while the sycamores brushed the other window at the side, hiding the bridge. This aspect of the house was a familiar sight above the treetops from upriver. I could hear the sparrows outside, chirping, hopping from the sycamores into the gutters and scuttering under the eaves.
How could such a little house have been so blessed? I knew instinctively that I could be happy there as nowhere else, and that I should never want to leave. We all agreed to go ahead.
There was no question of beginning work on the house until the deal was settled, so we began to clear the garden. Progress was slow, and the vision of Thames-side lawns seemed no closer, but gradually it came to hand, and the house began to show its ground floor, windows and doors appearing magically from behind the sycamore saplings and elder scrub.
It was midsummer before we found a buyer for our house in Westgate, and in the meantime we had found that the sale would not provide enough capital for the new business. Our car was essential, the dinghies would all be needed; there was only one other asset of any value that we possessed – Tadorna. Having been so recently fitted out and in such fine condition, she was snapped up almost as soon as it was known she was for sale. We had our last day out in her, all together, to Fordwich at the end of May; there was a happy regatta day in early June; and she was sold four days before our house, and carried off to Fordwich by her new owner.
Looking back, it is hard to believe I accepted this loss without great grief. But I did – we all did – because the loss of the boat seemed a small price to pay for the pleasure of living at Grove. Once there, we could be with the river all the time, and there would be plenty of opportunities for boating. So we let her go, regretfully, but with high expectations for the future.
But then things began to go wrong. There was a long delay over the vital planning permission. The summer wore on, and ended. Still there was no news. Finally we could wait no longer; our buyer was becoming impatient to move in, and we must make way. It was impossible to move in at the Ferry, so we rented a flat over a ladies-wear shop in Westgate, temporarily. November came, and still there was no news. And then, one dark, early winter day we heard that planning permission had been denied. There was no appeal.
We had given up our old business when we moved out, and so were left with no house and no livelihood. All that was left was a mounting pile of legal bills. The world fell down round our ears that early wintertime.
We spent an indescribably miserable afternoon clearing our gardening tools and the dinghies off the station premises, knowing there was no chance now of ever living in that happy house.
The railway authorities, meanwhile, decided there would be no more nonsense with the Grove Ferry station, and promptly had it demolished. There was no appeal against that, either. It was all over.
Epilogue – (written 1989)
So whatever became of us all? Well, my parents were resourceful people, and it wasn’t the first time they had been out on their ears. And Fate lent us a hand. The flat we had rented above the ladies-wear shop was the key. The owner had allowed the business to run down as she was about to emigrate to New Zealand. Within three days of the refusal of our planning permission, it was suggested that we take over the shop. Such a business was entirely outside our experience but since nothing better seemed likely to come up, we accepted. The first few months were very shaky indeed, but we kept going, with the help of an understanding bank manager, and slowly the business began to thrive. Indeed, it later became the best business Mum and Dad ever had.
Within a few years it had even paid off well enough for them to buy another cruiser, the Molly, and they resumed their boating days. By this time I had married and moved away, and my visits to Grove Ferry became rare, and consequently very precious. When I did come, I looked again and again for the old station. The empty space where the house used to be seemed a sad magic trick. The red brick that had seemed so solid was only a bright patch of remaining dust now, and the sparrows chirped in the gutters no more. Everything was gone – the platforms, the signal box, everything – all dismantled and taken away. Soon the encroaching plants had covered every trace. Oddly enough, though, our old dream of Thames-like lawns by the river almost came true. The station moorings were rented out and the new owners cleared the jungle of elders and nettles. The trees were clipped, and the sloping bank became lawns and flowerbeds.
One day, years later, we came upriver on board the Molly on a happy expedition to our old haunts, and dallied at the entrance to the tidal lake near the colliery, admiring the water. As we approached the weed-boom, we saw there was something caught behind the barrier, something large – a boat. The engine idled as the Molly edged gingerly through the gap, while we stared at the derelict wreck wedged among the clutter behind the boom.
It was Tadorna. Battered and forlorn, she lay sadly among the flotsam. The patterned curtains we had fitted were still there, ragged and rotten with damp; her hood was gone, with most of her other fittings, and a cruel gash had opened her flank. Her bow was aground or she would have sunk. Her rubbing strakes hung off in shreds among the strips of tattered decking and peeling paint, still recognisably the same as at her fitting-out, years earlier. She was a sorry sight.
After that day I never saw her again. Most likely she met the same fate as most marine-ply boats and ended up as a pile of soggy boards on the bank. But so long as I am not sure, I like to think that somebody took her home and patched her up, and that she sails still on some river. Perhaps she does.
When I visit Grove Ferry now, I meet my own ghost at every turn. There is the place by the slipway where I proudly held Tadorna’s line at the launch, twenty years ago, now; and there is the little sycamore where Peggy used to be berthed; and that little clutch of timbers in the water above the bridge is all that remains of our old friend Rose in June. There have been many changes at Grove, many boats have come and gone and many people. Len Miller and Frank and Rene have all been dead some years, and Mum and Dad have retired and given up boating. Janet and I bring our children to visit the place where once we were all so happy.
If I lean on the rail and look upstream, I see the one thing that never really changes, the River Stour, still flowing soupily down to the sea, still open to the spring north-easterlies, still winding across the marshy valley where the lapwings loop-the-loop.
It is as empty, quiet and desolate as ever it was in our Tadorna days. Still our same rough and ready, wild, windy river, where once we leaned on the rail and watched a pretty blue and white cruiser bobbing at her moorings one still July evening.