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Liverpool Street Station, a great Victorian building, is threatened by a hideous development. We must stop it, says Griff Rhys Jones

Blog | By Griff Rhys Jones | Sep 28, 2023


Some great souls have helped preserve London’s architecture – as gorgeous, monumental and distinguished as the buildings themselves. William Morris, John Summerson,

Mark Girouard, various Guinnesses, Ian Nairn, Spike Milligan, Michael Heseltine, Lord Duncan-Sandys, Nikolaus Pevsner and the poo-bah teddy bear of them all, Sir John Betjeman.

And me. I feel unworthy to step into the clumpy shoes of John Betjeman. Surely I ought, humbly, to slide in through a back door and lurk in a well-proportioned, shadowy corner.

But I have been appointed President of the campaign to save Liverpool Street Station.

We have to stop a new threat. A cross between a monstrous killer squid and a bloated white elephant is threatening to engulf dear old Liverpool Street. We need to start shouting again.

I have used this great 1870s terminal all my life. That’s, frighteningly, for almost a third of its existence.

I started when it looked a bit more like Edward Bawden’s sooty and dramatic linocuts. I’ve ambled through the station, lazily heading for appointments. I’ve sat waiting for that hourly Norwich fast

train. I’ve charged across the concourse, desperate to get the last train to Suffolk after appearing in the West End, on a Saturday night – not always a happy experience.

Once in the late eighties, after speeding through the final act of some low farce, I threw myself into a carriage. The last door banged shut. I found myself in a compartment with 20 members of an East End rugby club off their faces and on their way to continue a stag celebration at Hollywood, Romford’s première nightclub.

I have endured criticism of my sketch- comedy output in broadsheet newspapers. But as we drew out of Liverpool Street Station that night, I was glad I had made all those dick jokes on stage. This was my audience. Though already falling down drunk, and seemingly well-up for a fight, they formed an orderly and savagely disciplined queue.

Each got their turn to enquire about Pamela Stephenson’s embonpoint or Mel Smith’s jollity. When one of them threw open the carriage door for a bit of fresh air, the others beat him up for endangering their pet Griff.

But this is what Liverpool Street Station is. You’re not heading to poncy Edinburgh. It’s a Lunnon station with a proud history of short noisy trips into Essex. Bugger around with it at your peril.

The rugby club is not in the market for Louis Vuitton or seaweed moisturiser. We Essex and Suffolk people like our Victorian railway station and don’t want it to be left peeping out of some developer’s wet dream of avarice.

Last Monday, I walked out from Bloomsbury to get a sense of the City, the immediate London, that this station serves.

I certainly noticed how distinguished the entire place seems to have become. It was a stroll through well-tended streets, past little, carefully brushed architectural gems, not just the Wren churches, but the Armourers’ Hall, the restored Girdlers’ Hall and stunningly conserved miniature gardens.

It made me wonder why on earth Liverpool Street Station should fall through this net. Shouldn’t this simple and striking piece of architecture be similarly manicured, its girders primped and its terracotta frontage brushed up and polished?

Next door to the station is a Richard Serra sculpture, Fulcrum. It has been carefully protected while they rebuild Broadgate. They have smashed the 1985 masterpiece of Broadgate – to the horror of the Twentieth Century Society – into a pit, in order to pump up the site.

But, let’s face it, the station is a work of art, too – isn’t it? Because it’s owned by the rapacious and permanently cash-strapped Network Rail, however, nobody wants to cosset it. They have to exploit it in some way. So they have decided to market the ‘air space’ directly above it.

The bizarre, Swiftian notion is to build 800,000 square feet of office space directly on top of the existing concourse. The whole Bishopsgate conservation area will be compromised by its scale. To the east is the former Great Eastern Hotel, where John Betjeman got married.

They claim the Grade II*-listed first grand hotel in the City and the original train sheds to the north will ‘not be harmed’. This depends what you mean by harm. The hotel is already six storeys high with turrets, cupolas and romantic spires. The building would be left peering out from underneath a further ten storeys, cantilevered over its roof and dropping down its side to engulf the place.

Mind you, the area around Liverpool Street Station is a greedy district. There are fat, bulging moneymaking offices reaching into the heavens on every side. And why? Because they are such a short walk from this glorious station, that’s why.

Network Rail, however, are clearly jealous. They have a valuable site – just with a damned inconvenient national monument sitting on it. Can they join the big boys?

Having arrived, I walked past Lush and Marks & Spencer, down a narrow passage to a vantage point that reveals the full glory of a sadly neglected treasure. The windowpanes in the ceiling, supposed to suffuse this simple and glorious structure with light, are blackened, yellow and grimy.

The rear is also a shock. A huge, new steel basket – a Marvel Comics block – glowers at the station across another of these carefully tended financial-district designer gardens, called Exchange Court.

The rear of the sheds is blessed with a wonderful gable detail. Long, white- painted ‘station woodwork’ hangs down in an undulating rhythm of pointy arcs.

Closer examination, though, reveals that the paint is faded and peeling; the planks are starting up and rotting. Unlike the shiny seats and nodding alliums in the planters, the preservation of this most essential part of the park is not being paid for by anyone.

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John Betjeman’s statue, St Pancras Station. Betjeman compared Liverpool Street Station to a cathedral, with a café where the altar would be

London has recently regained some excellent working railway-age monuments. The almost modern 1850s front of a bare and unadorned yellow King’s Cross is striking, impressive and bold. It has been allowed to become the major statement that it was always meant to be.

Next door is St Pancras, rising up some 15 years later, and very different – that glorious puce cathedral of the railway age. Betjeman’s statue now stands there: justifiably his finest victory. At last, we seem to have recognised that the stations themselves are part of our London story.

Liverpool Street may be, by contrast, a starkly practical, serried rank of triangular roofs. But I think it is all the better for that. It has long been a working commuter station for a working City of London.

When Ilford and Romford became rows of semi-detached Metroland in the 1890s, local rails had to be laid alongside the long-distance ones to serve the daily rush of commuter ‘clerks’.

The departures board that once highlighted Harwich and the Continent (or Frinton and the incontinent) directed thousands out to Ponders End and Manor Park, Hatfield Peverel and South Woodham Ferrers, Rochford and South End. I think it sounds like a poem.

Any sane policy towards this station would emulate King’s Cross and clear Bishopsgate of the ghastly recent excesses in front of it – to free it to stand as the monument that it is.

Instead, Network Rail have launched a cloak of self-righteous nonsense to mask their Monopoly money fantasies.

They claim they are ‘providing ten thousand jobs’. Really? They are giving jobs to temporary workers in the construction business, maybe. God help us if, like the Old Street roundabout, this takes several lifetimes to complete.

But what sort of wonky reasoning assumes that if you build new offices, they will fill up with new jobs? In all probability they will move in from other offices, won’t they?

They claim they are ‘sustainable’. This is extraordinary. The word is tacked onto everything and, this time, is particularly meaningless. The huge construction they plan to throw up would generate tons of carbon emissions.

According to the latest research, the demand for office space will not return to pre-Covid levels until 2030, at the earliest. The rush hour has had its day.

Nothing is less green than the constant urge to import thousands into the City every day. Arup and the LSE tell us the City needs ‘quality’ – and how do you get that? By preserving your heritage assets, not by trashing them.

The developers claim that the City of London ‘needs a world-class transport hub’. Liverpool Street already has precisely the sort of Victorian, Baker Street, Mary Poppins glamour that visitors come to see. By all means, improve its Victorian elements. That’s what the last reconstruction did so admirably. But why turn it into a new, shiny, white anonymous toy?

‘It’s all delivered at no cost to passengers or the taxpayer,’ they say. What is? Acres of unnecessary office floor? Hotel rooms? Shops?

What they mean, apparently, are the ‘urgent improvements’ to the station itself.

The biggest fib in their ‘consultation’, which took place just a fortnight before the planning application, is that they have tried desperately to hide the offices and the new hotel floors.

They claim the station doesn’t have enough disability lifts or escalators. They will apparently provide £450 million of improvement utterly free. But hold on! It doesn’t cost £450m to stick in a disability lift. Or two disability lifts and five escalators. Or five disability lifts and six escalators. But it does cost that to create a shopping centre.

If the improvements are urgently needed, then Network Rail should provide them urgently.

They claim the current layout is ‘not fit for purpose’. Really? When I was last

there in a rush hour, the only queue was at the bottom of the escalator out of the Elizabeth Line: a spanking new chunk of spacious, high-ceilinged, architect- designed tunnel. The lack of proper priorities in that modern ‘solution’ doesn’t fill you with hope for other

new ventures. You may well believe that after the

tragic loss of the Euston Arch, a dirty great soot-covered propylaeum, and the demolition of Bunning’s Coal Exchange, after the formation of the Victorian Society, the Twentieth Century Society, SAVE and even the Thirties Society, after Town and Country Planning acts and listing, there are plenty of watchful eyes on our heritage.

But Smithfield Market was preserved only recently. The area behind King’s Cross was stopped from being razed after painful consultation. Great urban planning, mixing old and new, was the result. We have to continue fighting.

I recall campaigns in London not only for Smithfield, but also for a workhouse in Cleveland Street and the University of London’s terrace opposite St Clement Danes. (The latter is looking very shabby, I noticed. Hope they are not letting that die by neglect.) I also spent 20 years raising cash for the rehabilitation of the Hackney Empire.

We have good legislation, we have statutory guidance, we have conservation areas, local plans and archaeological preservation orders.

They are there to monitor and control what goes up and what comes down. But someone needs to make sure that these considerations are properly policed – especially when greedy councils and corporations are seeking parts of the profit for themselves. This one will save the economy/your city centre/your railway network/the planet.

Concerted planning protest is rare. Ninety-five per cent of applications go through utterly unopposed. That’s fine. Some shouldn’t.

We need to go to the sound and intelligent existing law to stop this assault on Liverpool Street Station.

Sign and share the petition (www. change.org). Join us in protest. Join the Victorian Society. Let’s make the requisite process to prevent big money and expensive lawyers running roughshod over London’s heritage.

We all need to be great souls and get out of the shadows.

Griff Rhys Jones is President of the Liverpool Street Station Campaign (LISSCA)