In Britain, the railway station is theatre. A place where tramps may mix freely with millionaires, a place like no other – apart from streets, ports and all sorts of other places. It is no exaggeration to say that the railway may be Britain’s greatest gift to the world, the apotheosis of the industrial revolution. It has become part of our national psyche, a symbol of longing for a time when to be British meant standing in the corridors because there weren’t enough seats on the train. And there is no greater glory to our railway network than our stations. Here are 100 that I’ve happened to visit in the last year or so.
Named after a bear that Isambard Kingdom Brunel adopted when he was attempting to extend the Great Western Railway to Lima, Paddington is a rare masterpiece. Although many will appreciate it mainly for its towering glass canopy and for the swift service at the Upper Crust on the forecourt, for the connoisseur its principal attraction has to be the gap between the platforms and the trains, which is wider than usual. At dusk, this allows shards of light to bounce off the wheels, creating a magic of its own.
Poor Victoria, unloved by many now it is no longer a gateway to the exotic charms of the Channel ports. But while there is much to admire in the clockface that adorns the outer facade, perhaps its greatest pleasure is its departure board. There can be few better ways to while away an evening than watching the crowds gather below the hallowed board while every service on Southern Rail is listed as “delayed” or “cancelled”.
At first glance, there seems to be little going for this underground terminus of the Northern Line. But stride briskly through the ticketing area, past the thought for the day notice and down to the platform, and you will witness a miracle. Look to the roof and you will spy a single tile glazed in a variant of the dull cream that permeates so much of the Tube network. In the fourth volume of his seminal work Tiles of the London Underground: 1930-38, the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner speculates that this tile may be unique. I see no reason to doubt him.
This West Country jewel is a monument to the minimalist movement that the eminent railway historian Gordon Godron so evocatively describes in his 1973 masterpiece Bodmin Parkway Reimagined. This station, conveniently situated a six-mile walk from the local town, dispenses with the faux-gothic grandeur of so many aspirant halts and makes do with a simple stone structure and a couple of prefabricated cabins selling month-old copies of The People’s Friend.
Regrettably not in use since the East Anglian branch line to Sandringham was inexplicably closed in 1969 (“one of the greatest acts of 20th-century vandalism” according to local historian Charles Windsor), Wolferton is still worth a visit for its urinals alone, designed by the notable royal toilet specialist, William Ashbee. The surrounding walls are home to some interesting graffiti scrawled by Edward VII shortly after he was diagnosed with a prostate complaint.
Liverpool Lime Street
Although it languished in relative squalor for much of the 20th century, it has latterly undergone a revival as the only station to have barred Michael Portillo from making a film of one of his tedious railway journeys. The mauve pastel jacket, so eloquently described in the 1973 Man at C&A catalogue, has become a blight on railway stations everywhere. The sooner it is eradicated the better.
Although Edinburgh is, to my mind, the finer city, Glasgow’s stations unquestionably have the edge. Central has a style that Richard Rogers once identified as a unique mixture of Scottish 17th-century and Italianate, with the merest hint of Swedish, though to me it looks more middle-to-late Romanesque. Perhaps more late than middle. Of particular note is the M&S Simply Food, housed in a curved wooden-fronted building, from which the late Duke of Argyll – whose views on railway architecture can be found in his privately published memoir, My Views on Railway Architecture – used to buy his daily tuna and cucumber sandwich.
The largest station on the Isle of Sodor, where railway enthusiasts are always guaranteed to be able to have a nice conversation with one of the many steam engines. In recent years, however, there have been unwelcome sightings of Ringo Starr who, along with station manager Mr F Controller, is unable to prevent himself from haranguing people about the benefits of Brexit.
Digested read digested: The book now standing at Platform 3 is for all stations to Tunbridge Wells.