Stations, according to Simon Jenkins, are the forgotten part of the railway experience. People love the trains, the journey, the passing countryside, the leisurely pace and the locomotives, especially steam ones. The stations, however, have been rather ignored. Sure, the ubiquity of Prêt, Upper Crust and all those coffee chains on station concourses has made the experience somewhat tawdry at times, but even the worst is better than an airport. Brief Encounter would not have worked in a departure lounge.
As Jenkins discovers, there is still plenty to celebrate and enjoy, and the modern disdain of stations is partly borne of our reluctance to linger in the face of modern life’s myriad competing demands. Linger, though, we must, to enjoy the variety of stations that have been left, largely by our Victorian forebears. Of course Beeching cut a swath through the station network, closing more than 2,300, but many were small or of little architectural interest. The most infamous loss was the old Euston, with its wonderful sweeping staircases in the Great Hall and overrated Doric arch.
For a while after British Rail had stopped closing lines, stations were still in its crosshairs, including, notably, St Pancras, not least because there was the potential of a quick buck from property sales for the cash-strapped organisation. Jenkins claims a role here in stopping the destruction. He was appointed to the British Railways Board in 1980 and was shocked by the disdain for heritage shown by a continued programme of station demolition. He tried to stop the destruction of the Derby Tri-Junct, a station, as its name suggests, linking three lines, but was told by the chairman, Sir Peter Parker, that it was too late.
Victorian buildings were out of fashion and Jenkins, appointed head of BR’s environment panel, trooped around the country ‘visiting distressed railway heritage, if only to draw attention to its plight’. However, Jenkins says that he managed to persuade Parker to fund a Railway Heritage Trust with £1 million per year and as a result no major stations were subsequently lost, apart from Newmarket.
The book, therefore, is a celebration of what’s left, rather than a lament for what is gone. There is the occasional expression of anger, such as when Jenkins relates how British Rail, in what he calls ‘the 1970s Devastation’, ripped out the free-standing wooden ticket office at Edinburgh Waverley designed by James Bell in the 1890s and replaced it successively with ‘a travel centre, a shopping kiosk and then a Costa Coffee stand’, which was in turn removed, leaving a few rows of metal seats.
Nevertheless, with more than 2,500 surviving stations, there is no shortage for Jenkins from which to select his best 100. The cover of the book is a good place to start. I confess that I had no idea of the location of the remarkable glass roof, sprouting out of a circular ticket office like the underside of a mushroom. It is in fact Wemyss Bay, on the Firth of Clyde, a station mainly used by passengers transferring from train to ferry or vice versa, and consequently needing to offer both shelter and speed, which explains the huge concourse that seems out of scale for such a small place.
Divided geographically, Jenkins admits that London is over-represented in the book, but that is understandable given the grandeur of several of its termini, built as demonstrations of power by the private companies whose main offices they housed. Nevertheless, this is a genuinely national selection, and while the larger stations undoubtedly predominate, Jenkins has unearthed a lot of gems in small places such Betws-y-Coed and Gobowen.
The photography is stunning, but since Jenkins’s focus is on the architecture — he is after all the author of England’s Thousand Best Churches — there are few people in the pictures, which rather belies the very purpose for which the stations exist. There are even fewer trains or locomotives. Jenkins wants us to look at these spaces that are ignored as we rush through, and to look behind the modern ‘improvements’ that have so often been added with little regard for their impact on the historic design.
In recent years, though, much more attention has been paid to heritage (sometimes excessively so, but that is another story) and there have been welcome improvements. One great cause for celebration has been the recent removal of the nasty 1960s lean-to that completely wrecked the wonderful clean lines of the yellow-brick frontage of King’s Cross, creating a pleasant piazza from which to admire what is my favourite London station (Jenkins prefers the Gothic extravaganza next door, ‘which gives me the greatest thrill’).
Of course I have to quibble with some of Jenkins’s choices and, particularly, his ratings. He seems to slap four or five stars on much Victorian architecture while giving only grudging praise to such 1930s Underground masterpieces as Charles Holden’s Southgate (one star) or Gants Hill (two stars), with its subterranean art deco concourse that would not be out of place in Moscow’s remarkable metro system. Inevitably, as he admits, there will be countless complaints about his omissions which, he says, will hopefully be remedied in a future volume listing the next best 100.
Stations, as Jenkins notes, are enjoying a renaissance. Look at how shabby, car-dominated entrances, as at Newcastle, Nottingham and St Pancras, have been turned into pleasant human-friendly spaces, and at how several major cities — and in particular London — are being blessed with a remarkable series of new or rebuilt stations which, in the capital, include many rebuilt Underground stations. And we are being encouraged to linger more, with many stations managing to escape the Costa Coffee fate and providing independent pubs and cafés instead.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator Australia for less – just $20 for 10 issues