When Kent Community Rail Partnership were engaged by Southeastern to bring Community Rail to the Kent Downs Line in 2020, the first step was to discover opportunities along the line to bring disused station buildings into community use.
The ticket office and adjoining rooms at Hollingbourne station had stood unused for over 30 years. Owned by Network Rail and leased to Southeastern, neither had a use for the space nor did they see any commercial opportunities for use of the premises. Southeastern were happy for us to investigate community use of the space.
The outside of the building with its boarded windows, locked doors and smoke stained canopy was not promising. Some would say that the inside looked pretty grim too. We saw potential.
To be successful the project would need a huge level of support from the local community. We needed to establish whether there was a potential community use for the space and volunteers who could come forward to manage it. In November 2021 we got together with the Parish Council, village businesses and many other local stakeholders to explore their ideas.
The village was about to lose its main community space and also its last shop. A clear desire was expressed to reimagine the derelict station building as a Community Hub, providing a space for people to get together, hold small events, a cafe and a small shop stocking daily necessities. Most importantly the community understood the scale of the task and people were willing to volunteer their time, skills and experience to bring their vision to reality.
We reported back to Southeastern and thanks to the demonstrable level of community support they agreed to finance the refurbishment. .
It was no small task. Paint was stripped from the woodwork of the original doors and windows, new pieces crafted to replace rotten parts. This was to be a sympathetic restoration, respecting and celebrating the history of the building whilst making it fit for purpose, including the installation of a modern accessible toilet space rather than the cramped cubicles of the past.
Inevitably there were unforseen issues, restoring the water supply and drainage being the most complex to resolve. Fortunately Southeastern continued their support and a successful bid to the Railway Heritage Trust provided for new flooring.
There was a great deal of curiousity in the local community about the refurbishment and what would come next. A website was created giving the background of the project, sharing updates on progress and seeking more volunteers to get onboard and help.
An open day was planned for January 2023, to invite people to see the transformation and get their ideas about how it could be used.
With volunteers to keep the tea, coffee and biscuits flowing, share information on the station’s history and images from various stages of the refurbishment, survey forms prepared to capture ideas, proposals and to sign up supporters; we were ready to open the doors to the public for the first time in 32 years.
The weather was overcast, with occasional outbreaks of sleety drizzle, it was grey, it was cold. People flocked in to see us. It was an absolutely phenomenal response from the local community with over 200 people through the doors while we were open, all excited to see the transformation of their station.
Survey after survey was completed and returned, giving insights into what people would like to see and the help they were able to offer.
The building was refurbished but there was still much to do before it could be put into regular use. Taking on the lease, meeting the costs of utilities, making improvements to facilities, installing a wi-if connection, to name a few. Things needed to be put on a more formal footing.
The open day led to the formation of a Community Interest Company to manage these and many more challenges that lay ahead.
The Railway Heritage Trust award and open day meant that the project was starting to be noticed. As part of Community Rail Week 2023, Rail Delivery Group teamed up with Community Rail Network to host the World Cup of Stations. This annual tournament established in 2019, celebrates the UK’s best stations by having them battle it out head-to-head in an online public vote.
Hollingbourne was one of over 100 stations nominated to feature in the 2023 competition with just 48 stations shortlisted by Tim Dunn (Host of TV’s The Architecture The Railways Built), with Hollingbourne going on to achieve 2nd place in the South East heats.
The accolades continued with “Highly Commended” at the 2023 National Railway Heritage Awards and a “Most Improved Station” nomination for the Community Rail Awards 2024.
These award nominations give recognition to the huge dedication shown by the local community to re-imagine this space and the ongoing work to bring it into regular community use.
The volunteer board of the Hollingbourne Station Community Interest Company have cracked on with getting things done.
A heritage open day was held in May, funding bids made raising £10,000 towards the costs of insurance, meeting fire regulations and Wi-Fi.
The station has been hired out for Sunday board games afternoons, panto practice (oh, no it wasn’t), and horticultural club meetings to name just a few.
Well attended fundraising cinema nights, Halloween and Christmas events have been put in place for the community to enjoy.
In December the CIC employed a manager to run a cafe with a number of trial openings. The Signal Box Cafe at Hollingbourne station is now open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday 7am-4pm
The story will continue, with more volunteers stepping up to help the cafe hopes to extend its opening times. Lying around half a mile south of the North Downs Way National Trail and National Cycle Network Route 17, it is being promoted as a destination cafe for walkers and cyclists exploring the Kent Downs National Landscape.
A bid is being put in to fund carpentry work to create “The Pantry”, a secure store for daily essentials that could save villagers a long car journey when they run short of basic items at home.
We’re planning a “Paws on the Platform” event for April in collaboration with Guide Dogs for the Blind, bringing trainee guide dogs along to experience train travel as part of their schooling.
We would like to express our thanks to Southeastern for enabling the use of the station by the community and their support with the refurbishment of the premises.
We wish to acknowledge the financial support received from Railway Heritage Trust for the ticket office flooring.
Many of the photos featured in this article were shared with us by members of the local community.
Our biggest thanks go to all of the volunteers in the local community who have given their time, skills and experience to bring the Hollingbourne Station Community Hub to life.
“I like how they have made the space accessible to all as I find it hard with reduced mobility. The spaces are big, and I like the colours.”
“Please will you open to serve coffee to us poor commuters in the cold and dark winter mornings?”
“I’m hoping to be able to use the space for an alternative to working from home when I get stir crazy!”
“We cannot wait to use the shop. We have really missed this in the village, and the chance to catch up with neighbours for a chat will be great. The station looks fantastic. We love the heritage colours!”
“It will be a great midpoint stop on my dog walks.”
“I love the station. It was so sad to see the state it had got into. I couldn’t believe the transformation. I’m looking forward to meeting with my friends for a coffee and a chat.”
“I’m absolutely loving the idea that this space is now being used. I have attended the games cafe, with my board game crazy son!”
“I really do hope that it will become a hub for Hollingbourne and I’m rather excited to see where it will go, especially looking forward to the film nights.”