Ever wondered what life would be like hidden away in a romantic and luxurious railway signal box in deepest North Norfolk? James Ruddy reveals all.
As we drove up, a thin layer of white flakes had already begun carpeting the fields around the Signal Box, which looked like it might have once had a starring role in the Railway Children.
The forecast was not good as the Beast from the East was roaring in and due to collide with Storm Emma, creating the landlubbers’ equivalent of The Perfect Storm.
In that hurricane disaster story, a fishing trawler eventually cockled over and went to the bottom of the sea drowning the crew and, in the film, a stunned-looking captain, George Clooney, as well.
With the forecasters suggesting we were heading for a similar Armageddon, my partner and photographer Sue Mountjoy and I had taken a vital step to ensure our survival – panic buying at the local Morrisons.
Armed with countless bulging bags of essential storm supplies – a roast chicken, frozen fish, oodles of pasta, baked beans, veg and soup, as well as plenty of Sauvignon Blanc and Guinness – we staggered up the metal staircase to the Box’s huge living room.
Just like the heroic Captains Scott and Oates of South Pole fame, we were determined to get ‘rugged up’ through the coming onslaught in the 19th-century wooden building that has been converted into one of the country’s most unusual holiday lodges.
And we needn’t have worried.
Inside we found the electric radiators and glowing gas stove were more than powerful enough to restore our core body temperatures to normal after being from quivering close to hypothermia as soon as we stepped out of our Honda Jazz.
In fact, our week in the Box, surrounded by occasional blizzards and night temperatures down to minus 10C, proved to be one of the most picturesque and relaxing of any trips we have had across the world.
Unlike unfortunate George Clooney’s doomed trawler skipper, we were able to weather our storm behind bespoke double glazing and with an array of services and fittings that would grace a luxury hotel.
Not only that, this place was every man’s dream location; after all, there aren’t many of us who would deny being grown-up train-spotters at heart.
Downstairs, the big double bedroom and adjoining walk-in wardrobe and shower room have a ship-like feel, with stacks of cosy woodwork everywhere.
Upstairs, if you have ever fancied holidaying in a room with a view, then it is just the thing for you. As the occasional woodpecker tapped merrily at the roof, we were able to stare out through windows on three sides at the deepening flurries and the odd leaping hare.
It was the same 270-degree vista enjoyed by the moustachioed railwaymen who pulled those long steel signal handles when the box was in its Victorian heyday just outside the Mid Norfolk town of Dereham, 120 years ago.
Those handles are long gone, as are the men in their starched blue uniforms and black peaked private railway company caps.
But you can still imagine the cacophony of hustle and bustle that once resounded inside the wooden walls as rumbling steam loco monsters puffed past in clouds of strangely attractive grey coal smoke.
Like those old stagers, the Box itself was eventually retired and ended up being moved in 1980 on a low loader to become a studio in the garden of a house in the nearby village of Mattishall.
Then in 2006, it was sold again at auction for £11,000 to an enthusiastic property developer and moved to its current resting place, a few miles away, to an idyllic area of rural Norfolk, just outside Melton Constable.
Once known as ‘the Crewe of Norfolk’, the village boasted a mass of converging railway lines as well as train sheds and red-brick workers’ terraced housing in the late 19th century.
The Signal Box is sited alongside the disused Yarmouth to Kings Lynn line and has since been bought again before undergoing the major refurbishment which has turned it into a luxurious and very popular holiday lodge.
Soon after we arrived, ebullient owner, Chris Wake, in a suitably heavy coat and scarf, turned up to help us with any concerns we might have about the oncoming blizzards and any of the workings of our temporary new home.
He lives in a pretty barn, just across the way from two adjoining fishponds, with his wife Polly. The couple have travelled widely as scuba divers and together run the Christal Sea Scuba Centre in nearby Norwich.
Their restoration project was meant to turn the building into an overspill place for family and friends, but the interest shown prompted them to launch it as a holiday rental, which has boomed.
It was clear from recent reviews that previous guests have enjoyed the delights of being in such a quirky building, virtually in the middle-of-nowhere and in lovely countryside packed with wildlife and birds, as well as having some easy walking right outside the door.
If Sue and I had been able to propel the Honda through the white-outs, we could have savoured stacks of North Norfolk’s fabled beaches, quaint villages, nature reserves and great pubs and restaurants.
Within a few miles are the likes of beautiful Blakeney with its quay and seal trips, Georgian Holt and its great shopping (a favourite of the Royals when they are at Sandringham) and Fakenham for its lively market and horse racing.
Through every season, this part of Norfolk offers so many options to burn car and walking boot rubber. But, thanks to the snowstorm, Sue and I were able, instead, to enjoy utter peace and quiet for once, savouring nights in with music or a free Netflix film on the flat screen TV after downing steaming bowls of our home-cooked smoked haddock chowder.
Oh, and a glass or two of wine and Guinness, of course.
Whenever the wind and snow held off, we yomped, like two Goretex-covered Yetties, a couple of miles to the Melton Constable Co-op and the butchers to top up on vital supplies, including those lifesaving Norfolk essentials, home-made Wild Boar Sausages.
Our yomps in the other direction along the public footpath that adjoins the Signal Box took us through 30-knot snow-filled blizzards to the village of Briston where, mercifully, we fell through the door of The Explorer pub and virtually dived into the roaring inglenook wood fire.
As you find everywhere in Norfolk (I spent 25 years there), the locals are particularly friendly and welcoming and we were soon chatting with the 82-year-old builder who created the inglenook, as well as a former England cricketer’s son and an ex-Royal Navy Search and Rescue speedboat sailor.
This sense of community continued down at the village Mace shop, where our excited chattering at the bread and pastry counter led to us stocking up with far too many home-cooked sausage rolls and Norfolk pasties (eat your heart out, Cornwall).
When the thaw came and we were able to load up and dig out the Honda, we were completely chilled out by our week of doing very little in a place of utter tranquillity and beauty.
The storm also gave us a real talking point. Indeed, as the travel marketing experts now say, many of our best holiday memories do not come from some paradise resort where everything is perfect – yet utterly forgettable when we get home.
No, it’s the vivid experiences, the quirky places and even the potential disasters that we truly take with us forever.
And I know one very unusual place in the middle of a peaceful part of Norfolk which ticks all those (Signal) Boxes!
Tell Me More About The Signal Box, Norfolk.
The Signal Box, sleeps 2 in 1 bedroom. Up to two 2 dogs are allowed. It is available through Norfolk Country Cottages, www.norfolkcottages.co.uk . Tel. 01263 715779. From £324 for a 3-night weekend break or £385 per week.