Book review: The English Railway Station

The English Railway Station

Steve Parissien

English Heritage £25

 

Railway books tend to fall into two categories: those that provide too much extraneous detail (as in: ‘The first sod of the Dorset Central was cut at Blandford by Lady Smith of the Down House…the expenses of the ceremony amounted to £224 13s 2d including £71 for wine…’;  and at the other extreme, those aimed at the presents-for-my-trainspotter-uncle type, which are often little more than train porn with a few poorly researched captions and a general history from Brunel to Beeching.

A few, like this sympathetic and accessible account of a much-neglected part of railway history, get it just right, balancing the pictures with the detail and sufficient context. The station was something of an afterthought in railway development. The first passenger-carrying railway, the Stockton & Darlington, did not bother to provide stations at all when it opened, merely stopping at pre-set points to allow passengers to get on or off, not an easy task given the lack of a platform. But the Stockton & Darlington was, in any case, a rather crude affair, mostly horse drawn and used for freight; it was therefore hardly surprising that it was the world’s first double-tracked fully steam-hauled railway, the Liverpool & Manchester, opened in 1830, that realised its passengers needed a station where they could buy tickets and shelter from the elements. This was the railway’s Crown Street terminus at Liverpool, which set the tone for many of its successors as it was designed by an established architect who was asked to provide a building that was ‘both solidly familiar and warmly reassuring’.

It took a bit of time for railway companies to understand that passengers, rather than freight, were going to be their most lucrative market. Thus while many of the early efforts were ‘an assortment of sheds, huts and barns, invariably scruffy, draughty and uncomfortable’, a tradition soon built up of well-appointed buildings that adapted a range of styles to the needs of a railway station.

Soon, the companies produced comfortable facilities for their passengers and then by the middle of the 19th century, they went much further, creating the ‘Cathedrals of Steam’ that announced their status as the biggest enterprises of their day, most of which have, fortunately, survived.

There is almost no architectural style that has not been deployed in station building. This book provides examples of every one, enabling the reader to choose his or her favourite. There is, though, an element of sadness that railway stations per se have never been recognised for their architectural achievements. Thus far too many examples have been lost to supermarkets, car parks or simply neglect. The most famous example is, of course, the destruction in the 1960s of Euston, its Great Hall and its famous arch (though frankly in my view there are enough Doric temples surviving on the planet), but there are countless other stations that are genuine losses where a more sympathetic understanding from the very publishers of the book might have saved them.

 

Most of this damage was wrought by the Beeching Axe, but there have been a few more recent losses such as the modernist Southern Railway station at Hastings in 2004. However, thankfully, as the author points out, many railway buildings have belatedly been given statutory protection and just as the railways have enjoyed a fantastic renaissance in the past couple of decades, so have its structures. From St Pancras to Birmingham New Street, Blackfriars to Reading, stations have been skilfully rebuilt to provide new cathedrals, a recognition that this 19th-century invention has a major role to play in the 21st.

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