Their Station Home is Their Palace
by Michael Alcott
Living in the disused waiting-rooms of a tiny country railway station might not be everybody’s idea of the high life. But there’s a contented couple in Norfolk who enjoy a lifestyle that’s very close to “royal.” Eric and Herta Walker live in the “down-side” buildings of Wolferton Station. This was the railway station that was used by royalty when visiting or leaving Sandringham, and as such, it is a very special station indeed truly fit for a king.
Wolferton sits on the coastal edge of the Sandringham Estate, two and a half miles from the Big House as it has always been) known. Finding the station by road is no easy matter. Narrow roads, wonderfully dense forests and rhododendrons conspire to confuse the visitor. Fortunately I spotted the tiny blue signpost, “Museum,” and was soon coasting down the hill where years ago the Duke of Windsor and his friends would cycle on trips around the estate. The first sight of this royal station is breathtaking. There are superb ornamental railings, a wide, graveled drive, lamps surmounted by royal crowns, and over the impressive main entrance is the crest of the Prince of Wales.
Since 1968 Eric and Herta Walker have made their home here. And what a unique home it is! But how on earth did they come to be living here? I put the question to Eric in the paneled retiring-room that had been built for Queen Alexandra and her guests. “I used to work for the LNER, based in London,” he told me. “In the Sixties I was involved with the closure of various stations. “In June 1966 I came to Wolferton to take an inventory. I was absolutely flabbergasted by the royal waiting-rooms retiring-rooms, as they should be called.” His astonishment was hardly surprising. Under dust and dirt was hidden a most remarkable set of rooms, unique in the whole of England. “The railway company intended to demolish the down-side station and build semi-detached houses on the land,” he continued. Fortunately for posterity, that never happened. In 1967 Wolferton Station and buildings were put up for sale by auction in King’s Lynn. Eric and his Austrian wife Herta were in at the bidding. To their great delight the auctioneer’s hammer came down on their bid. For what was then considered a decent price — £5700 — they started’ what many of their friends considered to be a mad venture.
We had planned this as our retirement home,” Herta explained. “When we came to live here in 1968 it was not a very comfortable place.” She laughed at the memory. “There was no water, no electricity and no gas. The toilets didn’t work and there was no kitchen and no bathroom and everywhere there was dirt, dust, litter and rubbish. It was in a terrible state.”
Why, then, would a couple who had a good home in South London take on such a project? They explained that it came about partly because of their love for this unspoiled region of Norfolk. It is an area that Eric has known all his life. He was born just across the Wash, within sight of the railway. As a young man he began work as a clerk at Sibsey, Lincolnshire.
“I always loved the railways,” Eric said, “and was pleased to find a job as a probationary clerk at Sibsey station earning an annual salary of fifty pounds!” Railways played an important part in his life in a more romantic way. He met Herta on the train to Paddington. “I offered Eric a match for his cigarette,” Herta said. “We got chatting . . . and six months later we married.”
When finally promoted to London, Eric never quite forgot the Norfolk landscape, the unspoiled villages, the distinctive local accent. This unique station offered him a wonderful chance to return to the area. But there was more to it than that, as he explained. “We have always been very interested in social history and we like buildings that are connected with famous people. Buildings retain an atmosphere that can fire the imagination. Here all manner of men and women involved with world events have come and gone.” Thus inspired to bring back to life the dusty relics of a bygone age, Eric and Herta set about the awesome task of restoring their station.
The line, from London up to Hunstanton, had been opened in 1862. It made the seaside accessible to workers in the Midlands and London. For the first year Wolferton was just a halt. But as early as 1863 it was a rather special halt.”In 1863, the Prince of Wales later King Edward the Seventh acquired a manor house at Sandringham,” Eric told me. “He came here with his young bride, Alexandra, in March.” Clearly if this tiny station was to be used by royalty it had to be made fit for the job. The Great Eastern Railway Company spared no expense in establishing first, in 1876, the Up-Side Royal Building. And then, in 1898, when the line was doubled, new buildings on the Down-Side were built.
It is these royal buildings, a retiring-room for the King, one for the Queen, separated by a magnificent central hall, that Eric and Herta set about restoring.”We did most of the work at the weekends,” Eric explained. “I used to commute to London, leaving Herta here.” Gradually the buildings took on their former glory again. The ornate ceilings were cleaned and painted, the oak paneling was polished, toilet fittings were restored to working condition on and on went the work. Of course, there were problems. “We had four outbreaks of dry rot,” Eric said, “and the roofs leaked.”
There were fascinating moments, too. “In the entrance gates we found a message, left there by the men who built the station, and with it an 1898 newspaper. So we put in its place a message of our own and a newspaper — something to interest people in years to come.” As with many hobbies, this massive piece of restoration took over more and more of Eric’s time, money and thoughts. “In 1976 I took an early retirement in order to dedicate all my time to the work,” he told me. To help finance the recovery of the royal station and to give other people the chance to see just how splendid it was, Eric and Herta opened their home as a small museum in 1977.
Today, visitors have the rare pleasure of examining the royal rooms, now filled with interesting relics and memorabilia of royalty and the railway. “It is our home, too,” Herta stressed. It must be one of the most unusual in the country. In their lounge, for example, formerly Queen Alexandra’s retiring room, there stands the travelling bed that belonged to Queen Victoria. There’s also an oak chiffonier. “That was made in 1898,” Eric explained. “Would you believe, I found it in use at Liverpool Street Station in the messengers’ room. They were sorting letters on it! “Most of the original furniture was sold in earlier years,” Eric told me. “What we have done is collect furniture of the late Victorian and Edwardian period to give the rooms the right atmosphere.” In the long corridor, leading from the platform to the hall, there are all manner of items on display. One of the most intriguing is a ring, found behind the skirting board in Queen Alexandra’s room. and did you ever realise that members of the Royal Family had to have train tickets? Here, on display, are such tickets.
There’s also a wax model of Fred Clarke, the LNER royal guard for many years. And Eric has cheekily mounted a small display of railway teacups ranging from the Spode china-ware used in 1892 down to the plastic cups in use today. They are still collecting items for their museum. “We are always looking out for things that are connected with royal railway travel.” What perhaps is most fascinating about the Walkers’ home and museum is its very special atmosphere. It’s hard to say precisely what it is, but it’s there all right.
You only have to reflect on the names of persons who came into those royal rooms Queen Victoria, the German Emperor, King Carlos of Portugal, the King of the Hellenes, the Queen of Portugal, the dowager Empress of Russia, members of our present Royal Family… and many, many more. “There were some visitors that were not welcomed,” Eric told me. “Rasputin turned up one day, asking to see the King. He was put on the next train back to London!” There have been amusing moments, too. “In the 1880s a circus came to perform at Sandringham. When the elephant refused to go into its truck for the journey home they had to tie it to a lamppost on the platform. It uprooted that and smashed through the crossing gates!” There are other memories, equally as surprising now.”In the Thirties there were excursion trains to the coast for Sunday school parties,” Eric told me. “When the train came to Wolferton it used to stop. The boys would get out, line up on the platform and play ‘God Save The King’ on their penny whistles. Then they’d speed on their way up to Hunstanton.” But all this came to an end in 1965 when our present Queen used Wolferton Station for the last time. After that it was only a matter of time before all trains ceased to pass this way and the line was closed on May 3, 1969. Trains may no longer travel to Wolferton but thanks to the foresight and enthusiasm of Eric and Herta Walker, a small gem has been rescued from demolition, and visitors can enjoy the rare privilege of entering those royal retiring rooms where, in Edwardian days, the only persons permitted to do so were the cleaner (the station-master’s wife!) and the porters who lit the fires.