'Britain's 100 Best Railway Stations', by Simon Jenkins - Review

By Wolmar, Christian | The Spectator, September 30, 2017 | Go to article overview

'Britain's 100 Best Railway Stations', by Simon Jenkins - Review


Wolmar, Christian, The Spectator


Stations, according to Simon Jenkins, are the forgotten part of the railway experience. People love the trains, the journey, the passing countryside, the leisurely pace and the locomotives, especially steam ones. The stations, however, have been rather ignored. Sure, the ubiquity of Prêt, Upper Crust and all those coffee chains on station concourses has made the experience somewhat tawdry at times, but even the worst is better than an airport. Brief Encounter would not have worked in a departure lounge.

As Jenkins discovers, there is still plenty to celebrate and enjoy, and the modern disdain of stations is partly borne of our reluctance to linger in the face of modern life's myriad competing demands. Linger, though, we must, to enjoy the variety of stations that have been left, largely by our Victorian forebears. Of course Beeching cut a swath through the station network, closing more than 2,300, but many were small or of little architectural interest. The most infamous loss was the old Euston, with its wonderful sweeping staircases in the Great Hall and overrated Doric arch.

For a while after British Rail had stopped closing lines, stations were still in its crosshairs, including, notably, St Pancras, not least because there was the potential of a quick buck from property sales for the cash-strapped organisation. Jenkins claims a role here in stopping the destruction. He was appointed to the British Railways Board in 1980 and was shocked by the disdain for heritage shown by a continued programme of station demolition. He tried to stop the destruction of the Derby Tri-Junct, a station, as its name suggests, linking three lines, but was told by the chairman, Sir Peter Parker, that it was too late.

Victorian buildings were out of fashion and Jenkins, appointed head of BR's environment panel, trooped around the country 'visiting distressed railway heritage, if only to draw attention to its plight'. However, Jenkins says that he managed to persuade Parker to fund a Railway Heritage Trust with £1 million per year and as a result no major stations were subsequently lost, apart from Newmarket.

The book, therefore, is a celebration of what's left, rather than a lament for what is gone. There is the occasional expression of anger, such as when Jenkins relates how British Rail, in what he calls 'the 1970s Devastation', ripped out the free-standing wooden ticket office at Edinburgh Waverley designed by James Bell in the 1890s and replaced it successively with 'a travel centre, a shopping kiosk and then a Costa Coffee stand', which was in turn removed, leaving a few rows of metal seats.

Nevertheless, with more than 2,500 surviving stations, there is no shortage for Jenkins from which to select his best 100. The cover of the book is a good place to start. I confess that I had no idea of the location of the remarkable glass roof, sprouting out of a circular ticket office like the underside of a mushroom. …

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