The community connection

Experts by Experience: Profiles of entrepreneurs at different stages on their journeys, identifying and sharing some universal truths along the way.                 

Authors note: When writing about a transport-related enterprise, there’s a temptation to use all sorts of painful puns about going places and fuelling the journey, about milestones and destinations. When the subject is rail-related the possibilities extend to ‘down the line’, ‘brief encounters’ (shows my age) and reference to ‘plans getting de-railed’. What follows is an attempt to avoid all such not-very-clever word-play.

Station House logo                                *   *   *    *

Call me soft, but I always get a bit emotional at airports and railway stations. I think it’s the sense of occasion and transition – the re-unions and the farewells, all that expectation and excitement. No, I’m not talking about commuting.

Station House Community Connections… the name alone conjures up the idea of chance encounters in a place of calm and cosiness; an oasis in our otherwise busy, often disconnected lives.

In most cases, a community has a station building long after the last train has pulled out. Unusually, Campsea Ashe in East Suffolk has a well-used train service but no station staff, ticket machines nor services, just a large car park. The potential jewel in the crown is the Station House – a private house and public space shared by staff and travellers from 1859 to 1967, and boasting one of the first WH Smith’s in the country.

Station House now

The house has been empty for the past eight years, but now a group of volunteers, led by    Rosamund Webb and fellow Trustees, are breathing life and love back into the old building. The new hub – a meeting, greeting and eating place – will serve communities across 11 parishes (represented by 11 rails in their elegantly simple new logo) and further afield.

But this is not about re-creating the past; Rosamund is quick to point out that online connection will be every bit as important as the face-to-face. “We’re bringing the building back into use with 21st century technology for the decades ahead and generations to come. We’ll have touch-screen information points and internet access to create work stations for businesses and high-tech space for training and business meetings.”

With a hub comes spokes – not just the rail links to London, Ipswich and points north. Plans include the use of community transport to get people to and from the station and, with tourism (the Station House is on the edge of an area of outstanding natural beauty) and  commuters in mind, a new ‘bike and go’ scheme is currently being piloted at a few other stations.

Artists impressionThe vision is to create a place where people will want to linger longer. “People talk about feeling unsafe on the platform and when walking to the badly-lit car park” explains Rosamund. “We’re restoring the platform canopy for protection from the weather and improving lighting. A cafe, map and book shop, and an exhibition dedicated to the history of the East Suffolk Railway Line will make the place more welcoming for everyone – not just travellers and rail enthusiasts.”

The whole project has been 2 years in development, with intense activity over the last 18 months around community surveys and other consultations, registration as a Charitable Society for the Benefit of the Community, getting planning permission, and negotiating with Suffolk County Council – the current owners of the Station House itself. Rosamund knows that to be financially self-sustaining they must create a facility people will want, use and, importantly, be prepared to pay for.

What has Rosamund learnt from the past two years? “Having a clear vision is important, particularly when well-intentioned people are in danger of diverting you. But making sure that vision is one which is shared is also important; the whole consultation process was about taking people with us. For sustainability, that strong foundation and broad backing is essential, as is having the right legal structure with community interest at its heart.”

The strength of the Station House is its location – it has high footfall and a unique position in a rural area. There is great expectation around what the next six months of fundraising activity might bring. It really does seem to be full steam ahead for Station House Community Connections. Drat – I almost avoided the bad rail-related pun.

More at www.stationhousecampseaashe.co.uk Follow developments at www.twitter.com/stationhouse01 and watch the film at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlTxz0WNbTw

Rosamund is in the 2013-14 cohort of learners with the School for Social Entrepreneurs on
the Lloyds Bank Social Entrepreneurs Programme at the Eastern Enterprise Hub in
Ipswich http://bit.ly/1c6lQsj

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