Britain’s 100 best Railway Stations: Simon Jenkins on the gateways to our railways

The latest book by Simon Jenkins looks at the 100 best railway stations in Britain. Gavin Stamp looks over the tome with his critical eye.

The railway is one of the most useful and benign contributions Great Britain has made to civilisation. However, efficient as it is for carrying goods, it would not have been much use to passengers without a method of transferring them from road to carriage – that is, without the development of the railway station.

This was something the pioneers of the railway could not have anticipated, but it is extraordinary how rapidly the building type developed, whether the big urban terminus or the little country station on a quiet branch line.

The original eastern terminus of the first proper steam passenger railway in the world, George Stephenson’s Liverpool & Manchester, miraculously survives (as part of Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry) and is included in this splendid book. Not knowing what a railway (NOT ‘train’, please) station might be, its designers made it a red-brick terrace with a distinctive stone façade for First Class passengers. It looked like a learned institution or a bank.

The 1830 Warehouse, or Liverpool Road railway station building, now part of the Museum of Science and Industry, in Manchester.

Yet, within 30 years, the urban station had exploited the new building technology of iron and glass to have both trains and passengers sheltered by vast transparent roofs.

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The associated masonry buildings were substantial structures in one of the fashionable styles of the day: Gothic at St Pancras and Middlesbrough; Tudor at Bristol Temple Meads and Shrewsbury; Italianate at the endless Chester General; and the magnificent Corinthian station at Huddersfield, which resembles a Palladian country house.

Railway stations

The railway station at St George’s Square, Huddersfield

‘Railway termini and hotels are to the 19th century what monasteries and cathedrals were to the 13th century,’ noted the Building News in 1875. ‘They are truly the only representative buildings we possess.’

The great Victorian London termini – York, Newcastle Central, Liverpool Lime Street, Edinburgh Waverley, Glasgow Central – all are here in this well-illustrated survey.

Above all is St Pancras, with its Gothic hotel and stupendous single-span shed. Threatened with extinction half a century ago, it has been triumphantly restored as the Eurostar terminal in a supreme and optimistic vindication of the Victorians’ belief in building well.

London’s St Pancras station

London inevitably dominates, but the good thing about this selection is that many forgotten, but splendid, stations in country towns are included.

They include Bury St Edmunds, eccentric and surprisingly monumental for a Suffolk market town; Stamford, in picturesque Gothic; and Great Malvern, with its Ruskinian ironwork, most suitable for a town full of Victorian schools.

Railway stations

Great Malvern railway station

There are also a number of little country stations featured, perhaps with platform canopy valances of decorative timber, a cast-iron footbridge and picturesque buildings, which were once such a feature of rural Britain.

These include Rannoch on the West Highland Line, the most remote and isolated station I have ever alighted at.

Railway stations

Rannoch station, Perthshire

Scotland comes out well in the selection, what with Perth, Gleneagles and Pitlochry. Best of all is Wemyss Bay (pictured at the top of this page), that Edwardian triumph of transport ergonomics, a masterpiece in steel, glass, stone and timber in which every detail seems perfect.

Thanks to Beeching, postwar pessimism and neglect, stupidity and the unequal battle with the motor car, the litany of great stations destroyed in the period of ‘Devastation’ is long and sad: the Euston ‘Arch’, of course, but also Glasgow St Enoch, Birkenhead Woodside, Nottingham Victoria, Birmingham Snow Hill and Crystal Palace High Level, as well as countless small stations.

Railway stations

Birmingham’s long-gone Snow Hill Railway Station, pictured in the early 1900s

Simon Jenkins is right to ‘take some pride in the fact that… no important station (other than Newmarket) was lost after 1980, though smaller ones continued to disappear’, because it was he who, in 1984, founded the Railway Heritage Trust, which has done so much to rescue and restore fine examples of railway architecture.

He is therefore the perfect author to compile an inventory of the best survivors and to pay tribute to the most talented railway architects – David Mocatta, G. T. Andrews, Charles Henry Driver and James Miller – and to give a succinct history of the rise, fall and rise again of Britain’s railways.

Railway stations

Middlesbrough Railway Station and Albert Bridge in the early 1900s

It is just a pity that a few of the contributions of his researchers are a little suspect. A garbled quotation is offered to account for the myth that the University kept Cambridge Station at a distance when the real objection was to running excursion trains on a Sunday. The correct quote is funnier, as a protest was sent in 1844 to the directors of the Eastern Counties Railway claiming that ‘such a proceeding would be as displeasing to Almighty God as it is to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge’.

Anyway, the original Cambridge Station is still there, with its most elegant arcade front designed either by Francis Thompson or Sancton Wood – it is one of Britain’s best.