Book review: ‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’ by Simon Jenkins
An uplifting paean to a fascinating feature of British life
We normally rush through them without stopping or looking up, always in a hurry to catch that elusive 10.55 to King’s Cross or get back home after a journey. It is a shame, for in many cases railway stations are so much more than purely utilitarian structures where one boards and gets off trains. More often than not, they are also hubs of local history, architecture and engineering.
Like the station house at Tsarskoye Selo, one of Russia’s first, which also functioned as a concert hall (according to some etymologists, it was from its vokalniy zal or 'vocal hall', and not from London’s Vauxhall, that the Russian word for train station vokzal, originated), they served as venues for meetings, rallies, state funerals and – remembering Lenin’s historic speech at Petrograd’s Finlandskiy Station on his return in a sealed car from Germany - even revolutions.
Emile Zola spoke of the “poetry of stations” that “our artists must find as their fathers found that of forest and rivers”. Boris Pasternak called vokzal, “a safe house of my separations and meetings”. And Soviet satirists Ilf and Petrov referred to stations as “alienation zones” – a kind of ‘neither here nor there’ territory, where you are already removed from the routine of your everyday life, but not quite on the road yet... “The station was truly a gateway through which people passed in endless profusion on a variety of missions – a place of motion and emotion, arrival and departure, joy and sorrow, parting and reunion,” summed up Jeffrey Richards and John M MacKenzie in their informative book ‘The Railway Station. A Social History’.
Coming back to the title in review, the publication of ‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’ (Viking, £25, ISBN 9780241978986) – an uplifting and beautifully presented paean to the fascinating feature of British life that railway stations represent – has been long overdue. And no other contemporary writer and historian could do it better than Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust, founder of the Railway Heritage Trust, author and compiler of two best-selling volumes: ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’ and ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses’.
“I see the station ... not just as a building but as a social phenomenon, a place where people perform the timeless rituals not just of travelling, but of congregating, working, playing, greeting and parting,” writes Jenkins in an introduction that, among other things, introduces the reader to the so-called ‘railway mania’ of the 1840s, when many of the “substantial” British train stations were built, and to the civil engineers, entrepreneurs and architects (David Mocatta, Charles Driver, Francis Thompson, George Andrews, to name just a few) behind those railway “enclaves ...that developed the society of their own”.
The great British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel also participated in designing the stations, like those in Bath, Bristol and London (Paddington). Jenkins describes how “Brunel would sketch a design during a stopover at an inn and hand it to his master mason to execute.”
Jenkins also writes with bitterness about the decline in station building after the Second World War, triggered by the British railways’ nationalisation and culminating with the demolition of the Euston Arch in 1961.
The body of the book is reserved for photos and detailed descriptions of Britain’s 100 best (from the author’s point of view) stations. This section opens with Jenkins’s own personal ‘top ten’ and a nostalgic list of the “stations no more,” demolished in the 20th century, which reads like an obituary.
Of course, each of us could come up with our own list of favourite stations. Here’s mine: new London St Pancras, with its bustling European concourse and the Eurostar terminal; London King’s Cross, with its stunning roof by Joseph Cubitt; Edinburgh Waverley, with its tunnels and secret passages, which Jenkins aptly calls “a nervous breakdown of a station”; Berwick-upon-Tweed, with its distinct ‘neither here nor there’ feel; and Letchworth Garden City (where I live), with its toy-like (almost doll-house-like) grace and beauty.
What are Jenkins’s top ten then? Read this superb book to find out!