One of York's finest hidden gems is a blooming marvel. And tomorrow it's holding an open day. MATT CLARK called in for a preview.

YOU might not have given it much thought, each time your train pulled in to Poppleton Station, but those old buildings by the side of the track are anything but redundant. In fact they are a hive of industry and home to a community railway nursery.

Make that the community railway nursery, because this is Britain's last surviving example.

It was built in 1941, on what was then the station's goods yard, and pressed into service to produce food during the war. When peace broke out production switched to shrubs and trees, which were used to stabilise bomb damaged railway embankments.

Once that was achieved the role changed again, to growing bedding plants and hanging baskets that would beautify stations along the East Coast Main Line.

These days the nursery is blooming once more, working with health organisations, such as York Cares, to offer people who are recovering from physical and mental health issues opportunities to learn new skills and develop confidence and self-esteem.

"When I first came down it was for therapy. I had an elderly mum and a busy job," says Chair Jo Sullivan Jones. "This was time for myself, potting plants and gradually I got sucked into it. I used to teach and I'm good at organising, so this is a replacement for work, really.

York Press:

Jo Sullivan Jones potters in the potting shed. Picture: Matt Clark

"A lot of our clients come through the NHS. This provides them with a social outlet, teaches skills and gives them a sense of purpose."

But without volunteers the nursery would wither.

Jill Duxbury has given her time here for years and is known as the plant expert. She won't tell you that though.

"I just sell them," says Jill. "Everyone calls me Auntie Wainwright, they think I make sure everyone leaves with something. I'm not like that really."

But plant sales are a crucial part of the business. It provides the pennies to carry out extensive plans to restore the nursery to its former glory.

"People don't just buy stuff, I try to find something that will suit what they want," says Jill. "Some come back and tell me how well a plant I sold them is doing."

She's too modest. Almost everything here is grown outside and to survive they have to be hardy. Jill's plants knock spots off the ones in DIY stores.

Being a railway nursery, it shouldn't come as astonishing that plants and machinery are ferried about on tracks. But the big surprise is that it's not original.

"The nursery didn't have a railway until 1985," says engine driver Bob Brook. "This is a two foot gauge and came from Leeman Road. When British Railways were getting rid of their narrow gauge tracks, our then manager asked if we could have it."

York Press:

Bob Brook on board his engine Loweco, which is named after the man who restored it. Picture: Matt Clark.

But there's no point having all that track with nothing to run on it. So when the Abbey Light Railway in Leeds, closed Bob bought its Lister locomotive named Loweco, after the man who restored it.

It may be the prize possession, but many donations also find their way here, from tools to sheds. Even goods wagons. And all have been put to good use. Indeed the station's red carpet is stored in one of the trucks.

Then there is the potting shed, which still has Roman numerals on the beams from when it was dismantled and rebuilt at Poppleton.

"The oldest building is a Knottingley shed," says Bob."It's about 160 years old and inside is still painted green and cream, the colour scheme used for waiting rooms in this area until the 1950s."

York Press:

Graham Collett transporting plants past the Poppleton Community Railway Nursery's oldest building, a 160 year old Knottingley shed. Picture: Matt Clark.

This is not just a nursery, though, there is also a garden, which although a tranquil spot now, used to be quite an eyesore.

"This was a dumping area and took a lot of clearing," says Graham Collett. "A number of companies sent volunteer groups to help out and now it's a lovely place to sit out. On open days we provide tea and cakes here."

This place is so quintessentially English and should be on everyone's list of places to visit. In fact you're in luck. Tomorrow you can sample Graham's brews because the nursery is holding an autumn open day and not only that, there will be a sale of surplus stock, furniture, tools and gardening equipment.

That trip to Monks Cross will have to wait.

Poppleton Community Railway Nursery is a fantastic place. There's more sheds here than you can shake a stick at; a potterers delight and that's before you peek inside the engine house. More volunteers are always welcome, so stop looking enviously at the pictures and get in touch.

Treasurer Pat Otterburn did, She's in the Yorkshire pit house (a half-submerged greenhouse). Today it shelters blooms, but when the country was digging for victory there was no room for such luxuries.

York Press:

Treasurer Pat Otterburn in the Yorkshire pit house. Picture: Matt Clark.

"They grew vegetables for the railway hotel in York and workers' canteens in here," says Pat. "I imagine they would have sold the surplus, though. Most of the sheds were originally on Leeman Road, but were probably moved here because of the danger from bombing."

And of course placed next to the main line into town, for easy transport.

Paul Botting says there was another reason. The railway allotments near York station weren't big enough for such a vast undertaking.

"So this piece of land had to be pressed into use," he says. "The areas in York would have been required for the war effort."

Paul has two hats; a volunteer twice a week, while Mondays and Thursdays he is employed by the NHS.

York Press:

Paul Botting and Pip the dog in the nursery's garden. Picture: Matt Clark.

"Horticulture has always been used by the health service," he says. "I've been doing this for 37 years, now they've decided it is best linked with a project at York St John's University. We're using education to help improve people's lives."

Paul runs courses for all abilities, from the right way to sow seeds and take cuttings to garden woodwork for those who are practical but less green fingered.

"We're also going to dabble in paper making, because we can incorporate our herbs and flowers," says Paul. "Equally they can be used in soap making and all these products can be sold."

Being in such a quiet, green, open air environment does wonders for people who suffer from stress. You can't hurry nature, there's no point trying and that has a calming effect.

This place is good for people," says Pat. "You see them flourish as well as the plants."

Poppleton Community Railway Nursery autumn open day will be held tomorrow from 10am to 3pm. Tea, coffee and cakes will be available and there will be a sale of surplus nursery stock, furniture, tools and gardening equipment.

Plant sales will then be held every Saturday from October 8 to 29.