A new book rich in glorious photographs shows London’s main railway stations, the big 13 terminals that welcome people to the capital and say a magnificent goodbye to people on their way to distant places.
London’s major railway terminal opened all during Queen Victoria’s lifetime – from London Bridge, which arrived just before she became queen, opened in December 1836 to Marylebone, which opened in March 1899, just a few years before Queen Victoria died – the heart of London’s railways owes their origin of the Victorians.
It is the explosion of both brand new technology and artistry that often looked back on the past that for the most part still dominates the railways today – giving them a unique character.
In 1875, The building news wrote that “railway terminals and hotels are to the nineteenth century, what monasteries and cathedrals were to the thirteenth century. They are truly the only representative buildings we possess”
Today, for many of us, railway stations are the largest buildings we will ever visit, they often handle more passengers than major airports, on a fraction of the space and with a fraction of the pollution. However, we can become so familiar with them that it’s easy to become almost complacent, too familiar, forget to stand back a bit and walk away, just wow.
That’s what this book with words by Oliver Green and pictures of Benjamin Graham does – it encourages us to look up and go wow.
The book addresses the big 13 stations that dominate London’s terminus – yes there are technically more – but if you asked people to write a list of London’s most important national railway stations, these are the ones you would get.
The book goes from the magnificent views of Paddington and St. Pancras to the almost village-like Marylebone and often overlooked Fenchurch Street and is mainly about the buildings, station design and architecture, but contains notes on how the railways change from steam to diesel to electric also left their mark on the stations.
Sometimes for the better, such as undeniably the magnificent transformation of St. Pancras from a dirty sleepy stalemate at a central London station to the huge hub and terminus that it is today. I remember reading a comment many years ago that when the Channel Tunnel was planned, who would have expected Britain to have the better end of the railway.
Sometimes the changes can be discussed. The author clearly does not like Euston, and in that he is in the majority view, although I disagree. The magnificent booking hall, which today is thought of lovingly and much missed, as it appears from the book, was at that time considered to be poorly designed and totally impractical. Even if it had not been in the middle of the extended railway tracks and turned in the wrong direction, had it survived, today it would just be a branch of Wetherspoons.
London Bridge, which today resembles a radically modernized Victorian original, has almost nothing left of the original – it’s all later rebuilds that have been rebuilt again. It is the genius of the railways, constantly evolving to adapt to changing times and passenger needs.
Victoria Station’s split personality is addressed in its many changes over the decades, from being two separate stations sitting side by side, to the awkward renovation of the 1980s. John Betjeman memorably called Victoria Station, “London’s most conspicuous monument to commercial rivalry”
Little old Fenchurch Street, today mainly a modern building with a Victorian facade, turns out to be the first station in the country to have a bookstore in it.
Charing Cross, long a station under threat of closure, which today would seem unthinkable, was mainly mocked for the railway bridge that ran across the Thames and spoiled the view.
Oliver Green says that the addition of footbridges at the turn of the millennium improved the river picture by hiding the railway bridge. I would argue that it highlights it, and turns an overlooked piece of background infrastructure into a landmark. Of course, the real advantage of the footbridges was quadrupling the width of the pedestrian space from an old very narrow footbridge to a boulevard, and it has undoubtedly been a significant factor in the Southbank renaissance that it is easy to get across the river.
It is estimated that around 8.5 million people a year now walk along a railway bridge. In a way, it resounds when the Greenwich Railway opened and people would pay a penny each to be able to walk along a footpath at the foot of the wonder of the time, the railway viaducts.
Similarly, the book’s great wonder is how it opens your eyes to overlook details. I find that I can often judge a building not only by how it looks from a distance, but by how it looks up close. Is there a joy in the detailing? And luckily, many of our major train stations were built at a time when detail was king, leaving us with a rich decorative heritage to look at when we took the train.
The railways have undeniably suffered in recent decades with savings in design and cheapness in architecture, but times are changing. Over the last few decades, in response to a huge increase in passengers on the railways, the stations have woken up again. Shaken by their grim looks from the 1970s, many have become destinations in their own right. The launch of a new Rail Alphabet 2 and regular design competitions show that there is once again pride in design and it can be seen.
Who is now against waiting at King’s Cross or St Pancras for a train to distant places, or seeing London Bridge as an unpleasantly shabby punctuation mark in their daily commute, and just something to deal with as quickly as possible. Can anyone arrive at Blackfriars and not feel a tinge of excitement?
Stunning architecture is uplifting, and this great photo-rich book encourages you to look up and marvel at the train stations. As Building news noted that the railway stations are modern cathedrals, then this book is an anthem for their design.
With a foreword by Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy, London’s Great Railway Stations is available from Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones, LT Museum and good bookstores.