Millers Dale Station, which lies on the popular Monsal Trail, is currently undergoing a £230,000 refurbishment and modernisation project which is due for completion this March.
The wheels began turning on the project more than four years ago and built up a head of steam in 2018.
Emma Stone, head of visitor experience development at the Peak District National Park Authority, said: “The idea is to create a café with the feel of a station ticket office. I think it’s going to be a good place to stop and have a break for people walking or cycling on the trail.
“It will be a nice way for visitors to get a better sense of the railway line’s history. We know there is a real growing interest in rail heritage, so we’ll be addressing that alongside the trail’s geology and ecology.”
She added: “Unless you know what you’re visiting, it’s not that obvious any more that it used to be a railway line. People forget why it’s there in the first place, so we want them to engage in that history.
“But primarily it will be a nice place to stop, refresh yourself, have a cup of tea and a bit of cake. If you’re doing the full trail there and back it is about 8.5 miles. With a reward at Millers Dale, it might encourage a few people to go that bit further.”
The park authority has borrowed money against future income from the site to complete the major overhaul, but Emma is confident it will be money well spent.
She said: “Since we reopened the four tunnels on the Monsal Trail in 2012, use has increased massively. On average throughout the year, it is now used by 400 people a day, but there hadn’t been any corresponding improvement to the other facilities they need.
“On the one hand, this is about improving the visitor experience and, on the other, it is a way to generate income which could support the rest of our work, as we’ve seen significant budget cuts in the last few years.”
She added: “We listened to feedback from trail users and thought about what we could do with the site without having a negative impact on nearby businesses.
“The café will be run by an experienced operator, and we are going through the leasing process now, but the authority will be much more hands-on here than at some of the other visitor sites in the park.”
Where the park authority is involved in cafés and refreshment kiosks elsewhere in the park, it is normally an arms-length arrangement, but Millers Dale is being approached more like a day-to-day partnership.
Emma said: “As it’s a small building we have had to integrate its multiple uses. It’s a new approach for us to train and support café staff to give out information, solve problems, and help to orientate people in the park.
“It will have close links with the visitor centre in Bakewell, so staff will be able to contact someone there to get assistance straight away.”
For the last few months, the busiest hands have mostly belonged to Space Design, the contractor responsible for converting the station from its previous use as a base for park rangers. Already, old asbestos flooring has been replaced, fireplaces revealed and refitted, new glazing has transformed previously boarded-up windows, and walls have been replastered and timber-clad in the original style of the early 1900s building.
Emma said: “The whole thing will be decorated in the London Midland railway livery it was originally painted in. It will look great. It’s a combination of crimson and cream which railway workers used to call blood and custard. People have come forward with pieces of railway paraphernalia like signage and lamp fittings from the original station or similar sites. People have collected random bits and bobs which they have donated back to us for decoration. It’s fantastic to see what has come out of the woodwork.”
She added: “While it was being used as an office, it was not officially open to the public but there was always a lot of curiosity about the building.
“In the summertime, when the doors were open, people would wander in to take a look around. So I think we will cater to that interest very well.”
New walls have been constructed to separate off the kitchen area and staff washroom and work has started to create a ramp up to the entrance door to improve accessibility.
Emma said: “There are two different phases to the project, and the first goes beyond just converting the building and doing restoration works.
“We are also making improvements to the car park and the public toilets, which have been there since the 1980s and now need a new sewage system to meet current legislation and protect the local ecology.”
The need to protect the sensitive park ecosystem has influenced the project in other ways, with the station being a favourite destination for all manner of seasonal visitors.
Emma said: “Bats have been using the roof space as a roost, which we’re very happy about but it has meant that work had to be timed carefully over the autumn and winter.
“There have been house martins nesting on the building too, and they are a species in decline, so we want to promote them and retain nesting sites in this area. We have also had slowworm sightings, so we have had to be careful with the ground excavations.”
Another part of the site treated with caution is the goods shed, which Emma ultimately hopes will become the second phase of the project.
Currently derelict, surveys have estimated it will take at least £120,000 just to make it structurally sound again before any more work can be done to bring it back into use.
Emma said: “Although the buildings are not listed, they are designated as a heritage asset and we are very keen to preserve that. I’m in the process of applying for external funding for the goods shed. Eventually we would like to put the roof back on then convert it into a weather shelter and interpretation space which visitors can access and learn even more about the local area, nearby businesses and the park.”
While that arrival may be delayed for some time yet, Emma and her colleagues are targeting an early March opening for the café.
She said: “You never know with construction projects, anything could happen,and a lot depends on the weather, but we are cracking on with the work.
“We’ll probably do a soft launch first, just opening on weekends to make sure we’ve got everything working perfectly before we open seven days a week from April and then get into the busiest parts of the year.”