Northern Ireland

Victorian signal box points the way to the past

signal box
Image caption On a sunny day the restored cabin is pretty as a picture

For more than 50 years, a railway cabin languished in a County Fermanagh garden.

It slowly mouldered into the earth, its glory days as a junction box in County Tyrone long forgotten, until a chance conversation revealed its whereabouts to a railway enthusiast.

And so, it began its final journey from Ballinamallard to Downpatrick in County Down and a new lease of life.

Image caption The signal box has settled in well at its new home

"It's got a history of its own, it's got a life of its own," says David Crone, the chief civil engineer at the Downpatrick and County Down Railway Museum.

"It's been in three different counties, it's had many adventures getting here and it's the genuine article.

"The cabin was built in 1893 and most of what you see here is original."

Image caption David Crone of the Downpatrick and County Down Railway Museum says the box is the real thing

It has been restored in green and white and given a new name - Downpatrick East - to reflect where it sits in the museum station.

It has a full set of junction levers, each meticulously labelled.

It is a transformation that enthusiast Alan Devers, of the Headhunters Railway Museum in Enniskillen, never dreamed of, having seen the condition of the box when it was found.

Image caption The cabin had become dilapidated over 60 years of disuse

"The fact that it had physically survived and hadn't been bulldozed, or just collapsed - it was good to see it, but it's even better to see it as it is now and to see it in a railway context.

"You would never have believed that it would end up back in railway use as it now, is so that is something else."

The railways in the western counties shut in 1957. Sixty years on, they still hold a fascination.

"People still have a nostalgic sentiment for the railway," says Alan.

"It was quite a major closure. It had great repercussions in the Republic [of Ireland] as well, because later on, it meant the closure of the line from Clones to Dundalk.

"So it dealt a major blow. It was certainly highly opposed within Fermanagh and had a very traumatic effect on people in the west.

"In fact, I think the west has never fully recovered from the great closure of 1957."

Image caption Nineteenth century technology still keeping the trains on the tracks

For Willie Gault, it is a day he recalls with great sadness.

He was a boy porter at Florence Court station in County Fermanagh, before being transferred to Enniskillen to work as a guard shunter. But that all came to an end in 1957.

Image caption Willie Gault started out as a boy porter in Florence Court station

"I could do nothing about it," he says. "They said the railway was closed. But I continued my work until three o'clock that day and that was me finished with the railway."

But a trip to Downpatrick brought him back to his youth, to officially open the restored junction box and to pull the levers once again.

"You let the signal down and the train went through, then you went back up again and you put the signal back up, and the train went through," he recalls.

Image caption Willie gives a masterclass in lever-pulling

"I loved working it, I loved working the cabin full-time.

"When I was at Florence Court station I was doing all bits and pieces, all different kinds of work, I was in and out and sweeping round and cleaning up and all, you know."

Willie's verdict on the restored junction box is "perfect" and David Crone is delighted with the work, undertaken with a £10,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Image caption The signal box is a tribute to the skills of the craftsmen who built it

"I think it's fantastic," he says. "It's a testament to the craftsmen who've done the work. It's also the original builders way back in the 1890s.

"Some of the timber was put together with brass screws that were greased before they were put in, which made it a lot easier for the restorers. But it's a testament to them as well, not just this generation but the past generation as well."

Willie is in complete agreement.

"Everything is perfect in it. The levers are easily pulled, and I'd be back to work here if I was still in my younger days."