St Pancreas Station, courtesy of the Railway Heritage Trust

The Romance of the Railways

22nd September 2017

‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’, by Simon Jenkins, is published by Viking at £25

‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’ – a new book by Simon Jenkins – celebrates these long-overlooked buildings that help link our nation. It’s destined to become a classic work on the subject, thinks Jack Watkins.

When you go for the train, do you regret always being in such a rush that you never have time to take in your surroundings? You have a vague awareness of quickly passing through a rather reassuring old building, onto the platform before hopping on board – the stresses and strains of ‘going to work’ immediately enveloping you like a thick mist. If you feel you’d like to take a moment to draw a deep breath and look around, Simon Jenkins’ new book may be for you. Mainly though, I think its appeal will be to those of us who prefer to take the slow train through life.

Jenkins is our perfect companion on the journey, neither too flowery, nor too heavy on the detail, but covering all the required bases. You may well have come across him before. He’s certainly had a remarkable career. Once the editor of The Times (scarcely a job for one on the slow train), he still writes regularly for The Guardian, by turns insightful and contrarian. Yet he’s also been the chairman of the National Trust and deputy chairman of English Heritage – so he’s got the journalist’s talent for the snappy line and the imperative need to entertain and not to bore, along with a genuine, campaigning interest in conservation. This book, following his popular England’s Thousand Best Churches and England’s Thousand Best Houses is one of those beautifully illustrated coffee table crossovers that is certain to become an accessible work of reference, a definitive guide to its subject, for decades to come.

Railways hold an undeniable fascination for many, but for too long a study of their heritage has been the domain of the ‘anorak’, not for nothing a term synonymous with that of the train spotter. And, generally, rail historians have overlooked stations, instead fixing their attention on steam engines and other locomotives, signal boxes and ‘lost’ branch lines. Meanwhile, architectural historians have also ignored them a lot of the time – perhaps because most of the best were built in the Victorian period, dismissed by purists for its stodgy, stylistic hodge-podge.

It was Sir John Betjeman who played a major part in opening our eyes to the glories of old stations in the 1960s, but Jenkins reckons that one of the chief reasons for their neglect was that they were unknown. “Enveloped in decades of dirt and soot, their architecture was invisible,” he explains. That took me back to a childhood family holiday to York in the mid 1970s. Coming up from Sussex, we had to break the journey at King’s Cross, and I have the distinct memory of looking across at the filthy state St Pancras, and thinking it resembled an ugly dark monster.

We’ve come a long way since then. Once earmarked for demolition, the restored St Pancras is now one of the glories of the still traffic-clogged Euston Road. Jenkins writes that ‘nothing so defines the rebirth of the British station…as the new St Pancras and the opening of its rightly called Renaissance Hotel.’

After a well-executed jaunt through the development of the railways and their stations in the first two chapters, the rest of his book is a region-by-region look at what the author considers the one hundred best of Britain’s 2,560 stations (the number is higher if you include the so-called heritage lines, some still running steam trains providing local services for rural communities, as well as trips for tourists). Jenkins says his choice was entirely personal, judged on qualities of architectural beauty, eccentricity and setting. He’s also allocated each station a star rating, from one to five. Nationally, his five-star selections are Liverpool Lime Street, York, Newcastle Central, Bristol Temple Meads, Glasgow Central and, probably the least known, Wemyss Bay, on the Firth of Clyde the Lowlands of Scotland – one of the few stations, in Jenkins’ view, that qualifies as a coherent work of art: so good in fact that there’s a picture of it on the book cover.

In London, his five-star stations are King’s Cross, Liverpool Street, Paddington and St Pancras, with the latter the one that he admits gives him the biggest thrill. For me, it has to be Paddington, designed by Isambard Kingdon Brunel, and where, as Jenkins puts it, there is magic in the air. Of all the big Victorian termini in London, this is the one which has best retained its Victorian atmosphere, those great glass trainshed rooves, supported by gracefully curving iron columns, reminiscent of the broadly contemporary glasshouses at Kew. Liverpool Street also has beautiful Victorian ironwork, though you really have to be on the platform to appreciate it, whereas Paddington’s aura hits you the moment you walk in.

The other major London termini to make it into the list are Victoria, Waterloo and Marylebone. The first two must be in on account of their size, rather than any special architectural merit or beauty, but I agree with Jenkins that Marylebone, whose name on the Monopoly board always intrigued me as a kid, has a sleepy, suburban air to it. Betjeman, however, once very unkindly described its well-mannered terracotta façade as looking like ‘a branch public library in a Manchester suburb’.

And talking of suburban, the book’s section on London’s suburban and underground stations includes entries on places like Southgate – “the most distinctive of Charles Holden’s stations for Frank Pick’s Piccadilly line” – and Battersea Park. Both only get one star, but they have good photos, Battersea’s being of its theatre atrium-styled ticket hall. Describing the restoration of the hall columns in the 1980s with imitation scagliola, Jenkins recalls the words of the station manager who said they made it look “as if I were running a theatre.”

Surbiton gets three stars, deservedly, because it’s got a real wow factor. Designed by the same man, JR Scott, who designed the Victory Arch entrance, the one memorable feature at Waterloo, Surbiton station is a complete surprise. When it opened in 1938, Nikolaus Pevsner said it was “one of the first stations in England to acknowledge the existence of a modern style,” although as Jenkins points out, this does ignores Holden’s pioneering work at places like the aforementioned Southgate.

One of the things that may strike you when flicking through this book is the range of styles that have been deployed by the builders of railway stations. At Windsor & Eton Riverside, for instance, with its ‘sleepy platforms under the castle cliff’, the effect is neo-Tudor. Its architect, Sir William Tite, was a prolific station designer, behind only Brunel and Philip Hardwick among the early Victorians, his most celebrated one being Carlisle. Battle, in East Sussex, taking its lead from the nearby Benedictine abbey and the gatehouse and for ever associated with the Battle of Hastings, is ‘railway gothic in its purest form’. The ticket hall looks like a chapel, with wooden benches and a fireplace.

Whether this book is enough to start you taking rail journeys just to see the station at the end of it is going to depend on the individual, but for me it’s something I know I could be dipping into for a very long time.

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