Ormondville, 11pm. A deep rumbling draws steadily closer, floorboards resonate with the soothing clackety-clack of wheel upon track. The reverberations reach a crescendo then die away, and the tiny town is once again enveloped by silence – until the next train heading north comes rushing through the night.
From the cosy ‘parcels’ room at Ormondville Station I have a grandstand view of this nocturnal activity. The station building, which dates back to 1880, has been renovated to provide self-catering accommodation for single-party bookings. It’s like being in a live-in museum with authentic ’50s decor throughout: Holland blinds, a retro Formica table with vinyl-covered seats, easy chairs and a standard lamp set beside a blazing fire, and a nostalgic clutter of railway memorabilia and photographs lining the wooden walls.
The old telephone exchange now serves as kitchen, the files room is a bathroom, and the ladies’ lavatory, reached through the ladies’ waiting room, boasts a sign explaining its new unisex status “given the easing of traditional boundaries between the roles of the sexes”. Part of the original 1880 station, it had offered female passengers the opportunity to perform their ablutions in relative comfort, while males had been consigned to a roofless outhouse located at the end of the platform. Hilarious!
Spending a night here is a railway enthusiast’s dream. In each room there’s plaque on the wall describing its previous function; from these you learn, for instance, that there was a boxed wooden seat and a bucket system in the ladies’ loo, and that the parcels’ room, now the main bedroom, was added in 1882 to cope with burgeoning mail traffic. In 1910, the station also housed the first public telephone in Ormondville.
By day you can explore the platform and railway huts that have been rescued from branches up and down the line, explore the village including the Church of the Epiphany (built 1882-83), or enjoy a meal at the Settlers Arms, renowned locally for its curried sausages and mash.
Ormondville’s history echoes that of many small country towns. When the station opened, the settlement was little more than a clearing in the Seventy Mile Bush. The arrival of the railway stimulated growth, local bush was milled, and houses and large wooden viaducts were built from locally sawn totara.
By the 1920s, Ormondville was a prosperous town boasting a bakery, the original two-storey Settlers Arms hotel, a bank, drapery, and general store. Locals kept time by the comings and goings of trains, and the railway provided a buzzing backdrop to everyday life. During the 1950s, 7,000 cattle, 120,000 sheep, 10,000 bales of wool, and 20,000 tons of fertiliser passed through the local salesyards annually.
The slow decline of Ormondville station reflects a pattern that occurred throughout New Zealand as local freight was increasingly transported by road, and the role of the railways changed. Job losses were significant throughout the 1980s; the stationmaster, administrative staff, bridge gang, and track gang were all laid off, and the station was closed to freight traffic in 1985. Finally, in 1991, the signals staff lost their jobs too.
However, unlike many of the 1,000 country stations nationwide that have fallen into disrepair, Ormondville railway station precinct has been preserved and transformed into a nostalgic guest house by the Ormondville Rail Preservation Group. It’s an intriguing place to stay – so long as you’re prepared to be woken by the odd rumble in the night, although I must admit to hearing only one train.