New Life for Helmsdale Station House
As established readers of Far North Express may recall, it was in 2009 that the Helmsdale station project was first reported here. We didn't realise then how long it would take for the project to get under way.
First, a brief résumé. The proposition was to attempt a rescue of a redundant, listed station building, empty for 20 years, whilst at the same time bringing benefit to both the local community and the Far North Line. As chairman of a Community Rail Partnership (CRP) in England, I could offer some experience of making an unstaffed station a focus for community cohesion. In the north of Scotland, circumstances are different: fewer potential volunteers, fewer trains, fewer passengers and fewer local authorities offering co-funding. Adaptations to the English CRP model were needed.
At the outset, the Helmsdale Station Community Interest Company (CIC) was set up, with directors locally appointed - ensuring a non-profit making enterprise, attuned to local needs, with any proceeds from the business going into station improvement and promotion of the Far North Line.
A universal CRP principle is community consultation. In Helmsdale this was through the Community Council, the Community Development Officer, local councillors, the MP (by good fortune the FoFNL president), MSP, local organisations such as Timespan Museum & Heritage Centre and, of course, individual residents. Here is a summary of the feedback that established the project concept:
|Issue raised in consultation||Response in the CIC Development Plan|
|Station building an eyesore - not good since tourism is now staple of Helmsdale economy||Restore building & develop most of it for self-catering holiday accommodation|
|Holiday accommodation should not compete with existing B&Bs, youth hostel or holiday cottages||Commitment to self-catering accommodation advertised in 'niche' publications only such as railway press, ACoRP Train Times, Saga magazine, National Trust magazine to ensure it attracts additional visitors who would not otherwise visit the area|
|Station needs volunteers to keep it well groomed||Include tool store/tea break room in development to encourage local volunteers|
|Lack of potential volunteers in this small community||Give 10% discount to accommodation tenants if they spend ½ day a week working on station flowerbeds and immediate surroundings|
|Promote use of railway/public transport as well as amenities in Helmsdale||Give further 10% discount to accommodation tenants if they arrive by public transport, walking or cycling (such tenants are more likely to spend money at local shops, bars and restaurants)|
|Promote and protect the Far North line more generally to help secure rail service on line||Use some proceeds from letting for extended publicity of line such as website/a Line Guide/co-ordinated train/bus timetables|
|Waiting room on Inverness-bound platform||Include reopened waiting room in development plans - also a visitor reception point (see next entry)|
|Promote local attractions & amenities||Include small display of local businesses in waiting room/visitor reception point|
|Create employment opportunities||Employ part-time caretaker/cleaner|
Three and half years later, having gained planning permission, listed building consent (it is a category B listed building), a 50-year tripartite lease with Network Rail and First ScotRail and funding from LEADER, the Railway Heritage Trust and the Stations Community Development Fund, the scaffolding is up and work started in late July. For the next 3 months, we must apologise to users of the station for the inconvenience of scaffolding and a builder's yard in the car park. On our website (in course of construction and currently with a temporary address given below) there is a full photographic condition survey showing the state in which we found the building. (This document is also available on the FoFNL website .)
It is pleasing that, since our start in 2010, the CRP movement has officially arrived in Scotland and the movement out of which this project has emerged is now officially supported by Transport Scotland and First ScotRail.
The date of the official opening will be announced in the next issue of FNE. We hope there will be an opportunity for FoFNL members to visit the building on a separate occasion.
Finally, a triple appeal to readers. First, we will be furnishing the accommodation in a way that as much as possible echoes its past use as the stationmaster's house - with the living room being the old ticket office. If anyone has any appropriate items which might contribute to this and which they would be interested in donating, loaning or selling, please get in touch. Secondly, from November onwards there will be workdays at the station when finishing-off jobs will be undertaken to get the building ready for letting. If any reader would be prepared to help, please let me know. Lastly, the accommodation (comprising four bedrooms, self-catering, downstairs wet room to aid residents with physical disabilities) will be available for letting from early Spring, 2014. Full details will be available on the website, but please pass this on to anyone you think might be interested.