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Cathedrals of the rails

Books | January 2018

Britain's Hundred Best Railway Stations by Simon Jenkins, reviewed by Lucinda Lambton

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Three hundred rendering-yourself-hoarse cheers for Simon Jenkins; for showing us such bewitching buildings in his Britain’s Hundred Best Railway Stations; a brilliant and beautiful bonanza of a book, jam-packed with interest and excellence; with sympathetic and serious scholarship; and, to boot, with illustrations that will thrill you to the very core of your being. No easy task with stock pictures but here it is an exhilarating triumph.

‘Railway termini are to the 19th century what monasteries and cathedrals were to the 13th century. They are truly the only representative buildings that we possess.’ So wrote the Building News in 1875, rightly lauding these great structural symbols of the age.

It was a noble claim, which Jenkins successfully sets out to prove in stirringly eloquent terms; leading us, furthermore, through the battered history of the railway station, which has ‘soared, stuttered and declined’ and now – joy of joys – is once again standing proud; I had no idea to what extent. 

Jenkins is a distinguished architectural buff as well as a railway aficionado, and his words ring true with knowledgeable wisdom. The first surprise to spike our complacency that we at least know about the bare bones of the railways, is that they were a Georgian rather than a Victorian achievement; having steamed into the world in 1804, with Richard Trevithick’s engine in Merthyr Tydfil, followed in by George, then Robert Stephenson’s steam trains from Stockton to Darlington and Liverpool to Manchester, from 1825.

Thereafter, railway mania marched forth, bestriding the length and breadth of the land with wanton abandon. Companies were granted compulsory purchasing powers to route their trains wherever they wished; we read of the alarming sight of surveyors on the horizon, bristling with the desire and power to grab your land.

Lines were sent off in quite unsuitable directions, simply to forestall others. There were enemies aplenty: the newspaper John Bull savaged the railway as the ruination of Great Britain, with the face of the kingdom tattooed with ‘deformities’. So much for the ‘iron veins’ that gave a new life to the country; what about the stations that trumpeted forth their triumph? There hadn’t been a surge of building on this scale since the Middle Ages and the chance of contributing to such an important architectural showcase was too good a chance for engineers and architects to miss. 

With such an open field, ‘the Battle of the Styles’ was free to rage rampant: from the full-whack Gothic glories of St Pancras – today with a web-like wonder of a modern booking hall – to the tiny and exquisitely designed Italianate station at Gobowen. We are shown Eastbourne, with ‘its eccentric roofscape beaming… in a confident smile’, looking to Jenkins ‘as if the craftsmen had been told to rifle through the pattern books and reproduce anything that took their fancy’.Then there’s Great Malvern: blessed with its wealth of iron capitals finely wrought into such charmful forms as conkers, lilies and strawberries, to this day painted in their original, violent colours.

Slough’s station is French through and through, in ‘a style that was fiercely fashionable across southern England’ – making an entrancing contribution to the fermenting railway fever. Its enemies were legion. Ruskin of course loathed such fakery: ‘Better bury gold in the embankments,’ he wrote, ‘than put it on ornaments on the stations… You would not put rings on the finger of a smith at his anvil.’ Thank God, I say, for the veritable bejewelling of our railway buildings. They have an indefinable but immediately recognisable quality, that was created with a pride that still shines  through, stirring our patriotic pleasure for one of Britain’s greatest achievements.

Many, too, are the surprises great and small that could only come from such a surefooted guide: like the virtually hidden modernist homage to Mies van der Rohe, a little black-glass station sandwiched between a sunken, urban carriageway and a church in Jesmond.

One of the greatest stars, though, of this splendid show of civic pride countrywide, is the gossamer-like delicacy of Wemyss Bay station on the Firth of Clyde. The Pevsner guide talks of its ‘sinuous, skeletal geometrics, effulgent with light filtered through filigree roofs’. It makes me want to dance with delight; down its lofty avenues of slender cast-iron pillars and glass-covered walkways of 1903. It has been my favourite station for years; what a pleasure that Jenkins should give it pride of place on the cover of his magisterial book.

This story was from January 2018 issue. Subscribe Now