One man’s bid to transform a Victorian station into a family home has really captured the imagination after appearing on a popular property show last week.
Around 1.5million viewers tuned in last Thursday night to Channel 4’s The Restoration Man to watch Lee Head as he single-handedly laboured to restore the grade II-listed Whittingham Station.
Lee first came across the station in 2008 thanks to his in-laws, who live in Whittingham. At the time, he and his wife Kerry lived in Morpeth so Lee was unaware that the building was there because he always came up the A697 and turned left into the village.
Kerry’s dad, Shaun Fawcett, told him about the place because he was interested in architecture, but having gone there to have a look on a Sunday afternoon, he fell in love with it.
The station was part of the old Alnwick to Cornhill steam line and is thought to have opened in 1887. It closed to passengers in 1930 and was shut down completely in 1953. Lee thinks it was used briefly as holiday accommodation after that, but it had been sitting empty for around 60 years.
The Tuesday after his walk, he carried out a Land Registry search to find out who owned it and was going to write to them to see if they might sell, but that Friday, his father-in-law rang to say it had been put on the market – for the first time in its history.
It took eight months to get the sale sorted and, as explained during the programme, which is presented by George Clarke, Lee had to buy the whole site, including the stationmaster’s house, the engine shed and a terrace of five cottages, for £750,000.
He had to sell the cottages and obtain the money for them on the day he bought the site to ensure he could fund the purchase. “I wasn’t looking (to buy a property) and I had very little money,” he said. “I managed to rustle up £70,000 of my own money.”
Planning permission was granted in 2011 for the station building and the engine shed – the latter has been sold on, although the restoration has not yet started – but work didn’t start in earnest until the summer of 2012 when Lee began work on the windows; 26 panes were smashed and needed replacing, as well as work to the window frames.
One of the most remarkable things about the restoration is that the 50-year-old has done almost everything himself, although this was partly enforced by financial constraints.
Not only that, but he only worked on the project on Fridays and the weekends as he works away from Northumberland during the rest of the week, as far afield as Manchester, Edinburgh and, currently, Aylesbury, as a financial consultant.
“I had no budget to do it so it was really going to be a case of plod along and do it,” he said. “I was keen to do it myself too; everything was in my head about how I wanted it to be. If I brought in builders, I don’t think they would have the same passion for restoring a listed building.
“I knew it was going to take a long time, but it didn’t matter, even if it took five years. I bought the whole site because I wanted this to be the family home.”
Early on in the process, having seen an episode of The Restoration Man one weekend, Lee decided to email the producers to let them know about his project. He quickly received a call back informing him that they had been trying to track him down for some time.
Referring to the production, he said: “I quite enjoyed it and it was quite an interesting experience. It was quite hard work doing filming. From a whole day’s filming, they only get a few minutes of film.
“They did about 10 days here and George Clarke was up about four or five times. It was good because it kept me under pressure and kept me focused on getting to certain stages.”
And Lee described the reaction to last Thursday’s transmission of the episode as amazing.
“I don’t use Facebook or Twitter, but Twitter has been really complimentary about it and me. I have received letters and one guy sent me pictures of tickets from Whittingham Station back in the day. It’s quite humbling what people have to say.”
But while the couple are living in their new home, there is still more work to do; inside, the northern end is still to do to create three more bedrooms. The rooms are plastered and have electricity, but need flooring and decorating. Externally, glass needs to be installed in the canopy along the back of the building so it matches the front, which is enclosed by a glass structure and glazed panels.
But given the scale of what has been achieved so far, Lee is sure to be able to tackle the remaining work.
The episode of The Restoration Man, entitled Railway Station 2016, is available for another 23 days to watch via All 4, the channel’s on-demand service.