A ticket to stay in Yorkshire
The old railway station at Castle Howard is now a fabulous holiday let, says Stephen McClarence
Pootling through Yorkshire, we reckon we'll soon need to turn off the A64. But where? I check the directions that Platform 1, our base for the weekend, has sent us. "Start looking for a crossroads," they say. "The road sign, right, indicates a dead end. We are the dead end."
Platform 1 hasn't always been a dead end. For almost a century, as Castle Howard station, it was the Howard family's gateway to the rest of Britain, and the place where Queen Victoria once arrived for a two-night stay at their grander-than-grand palace.
The station closed to passenger services in 1930, though for many years the Howards reserved the right to flag down passing trains. It carried on as a freight station - in Victorian times it unloaded supplies for farmers and works of art for Castle Howard - but it finally closed in 1959, pre-empting Beeching.
It's actually a good three miles from the big house, as my wife and I discover as we turn off the A64 and drive down a long narrow lane through woodland bright with wood anemones. "Slow please," says a sign outside a cottage. "Small boy playing."
At the bottom of the lane is an enchanting honey-stoned building with a trim balcony overhanging what used to be the platform. It's such an ornate building, and so Italianate, that it looks more like a villa in the Tuscan hills than a railway station in rural North Yorkshire.
Anne Collins is here to greet us. She and her husband, Edmund, live in one half of the building and they've converted the other half into Platform 1, a self-catering holiday let that sleeps four.
The old waiting room has become the dining/sitting room, the ladies' waiting room is now the kitchen, the hall used to be the ladies' toilet and the bedroom was the gents, though you'd never guess (you know what! mean).
It's been done in great style, with underfloor heating, a wood-burning stove, wooden shutters, a well-equipped kitchen and plenty of framed timetables, old photographs and posters. "Just the ticket for a first-class holiday break with a difference," the Collinses say, and they're absolutely right: calm, seclusion, and you can watch woodpeckers on the bird-feeder.
"I thought when we opened that it would all be train enthusiasts who'd come to stay," says Anne. "But it hasn't been ... and I've become a bit of a train enthusiast myself."
Halfway through that sentence, there's a distant hooting, then a low rumble, and then ... whoosh, the 15.48 from Scarborough to York and Liverpool roars past, 15 ft from the window. We soon get used to this. The trains from York pass more or less on the hour; the ones from Scarborough at about quarter-past. We generally try to be outside to wave; just to be chummy, just to be middle-aged Railway Children.
Otherwise, only birdsong disturbs the startling quiet down here. In late evening, we listen to the owls, hooting like trains as they hunt. The Noise Abatement Society should do something about the deafening dawn chorus, though.
Strange to think that Queen Victoria walked through here in 1850. The Illustrated London News gave a vivid account of her carriage drive to Castle Howard. "At the most convenient points along the route," it noted, "the peasantry were collected to see their Queen, who acknowledged very graciously their simple-hearted demonstrations of loyalty."
Next morning, we retrace Queen Victoria's route, through gateways and past obelisks. Castle Howard - Yorkshire's Versailles, as it's been called - surveys a perfect landscaped estate, a triumph of geometry over nature.
As for the house itself: "The North will never be dull as long as it has Castle Howard," Simon Jenkins, the chairman of the National Trust, has enthused. "Jawdroppingly vulgar," sniffed a 2009 visitor, and to the house's credit, it quotes the comment in a display.
Guided by rope barriers, we drift through one plush, art-stacked room after another and wonder, in our simple-hearted peasantish way, if all this wasn't just created as a stage set for wealth and ostentation.
Malton, five miles up the road, is a very different affair: a lively, unpretentious market town with plenty of locally owned shops. The most intriguing is G. Woodall & Sons, "rope, net & cover makers", here since 1884. It offers spools of polished flax, tins of hoof tar, Barbour repair kits, and some things you could never imagine.
"We sell tarpaulin covers for 54ft potato graders pulled by tractors," says the man behind the counter, "and prolapse harnesses for sheep." I ask his name. ''I'm known as Winston," he says, very dry. His surname? "Winston'll do."
Malton has plenty of foodie shops, the stylishly refurbished Talbot Hotel, and Scrooge's Counting House, a well researched visitor centre in the offices that may have inspired A Christmas Carol.
Dickens visited Malton when his brother Alfred, a civil engineer, was based in the town when he was helping to build the very railway line that we're staying alongside.
This is a good place to base yourself for visiting a great swath of Yorkshire: York, of course, Scarborough, Helmsley (charming), Pickering (with North Yorkshire Moors Railway trips to Whitby), the brooding North York Moors themselves, the more lyrical Yorkshire Wolds. But we don't stray far.
A mile down the line is Kirkham Priory. Few ruins can have such a picturesque setting: river, gracious arching bridge, wooded hillside, copses, winding hedgerowed lanes, farms. Families picnic in the meadows and wave as trains pass. It's good to know we're not the only Railway Children round here.
Stephen McClarence was a guest of Platform 1 (01653 749750, castlehowardstation.com).