Book interview: Sir Simon Jenkins – ‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’
Image credit: Picture courtesy Railway Heritage Trust
Britain’s railways are not just about trains, says Sir Simon Jenkins. If you want to know more about the times in which the railways flourished and declined, look at the stations.
“British railway stations today are probably looking better than they did in the 19th century,” says Sir Simon Jenkins. He should know. A lifelong enthusiast for railway architecture, he’s done more than most to be qualified to make such a statement.
His latest book, ‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’, tells the story in thumbnail architectural biographies of how the station has ridden the highs and lows of nearly two centuries of expansion and decline. There have been great eras of station building and prolonged bouts of demolition. This is their story in 100 snapshots, backed up by two fascinating essays.
Jenkins’ CV features a number of prominent appointments associated with the railway industry. For a decade he was on the board of British Rail, as well as having founded the Railway Heritage Trust, which has left him with a “deep interest in British railway buildings”. He goes on to say that he wanted to find a way to bring “the architectural quality of railway stations in Britain” to public attention, “especially given the fact that in the past 50 years they’ve gone through a desperate neglect, only to find that recently they have been revived”.
Jenkins says that the main reason for writing his heavily illustrated book (with photographs by some of the finest railway photographers of the day) is that these buildings are, despite the neglect, “very interesting too because of their eclecticism. And now that they are being intensively used again, I believe that if you describe some of this architecture and the architects behind it – many of them unknown – you’ll give people a much better interest in them. I’m a journalist,” says Jenkins, former editor of the Times newspaper, “but architecture has always been my sideline.”
He’s also the author of several numerical-format books, such as ‘England’s Thousand Best Churches’ and ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses’, “but I certainly wasn’t going to do a thousand stations. In fact, I’m never going to do a thousand of anything ever again.”
But keeping the numbers down created room for a brace of extended essays on the history of the station. “I thought this would concentrate the mind if I did the one hundred best. We know what the heritage tradition of the train is – there are thousands of books on that – but we know much less about stations.”
Although the rise of the railway is commonly thought of as a Victorian phenomenon, that is a popular misconception. “I always think of it as a Georgian thing.” (Sticklers note that while the railways started during the reign of King William IV, his short reign is somewhat confusingly categorised by historians as ‘Georgian’). The start was inauspicious, with railway stations “being little more than places to get on and off the train and buy a ticket, which I suppose they still are in a sense”. But there was none of the grand ‘cathedral building’ that we associate with the later, great London terminals such as Paddington or King’s Cross.
“Broadly speaking, they started off as fairly modest places made of brick and stone, thrown up very quickly because basically the railway companies wanted to get going as quickly as they could. And these were the products of the ‘Mania’, which was an extraordinary period in the late 1830s to the late 1840s when the network of railways in Britain was more or less built. There was this great burst of activity and people really went mad. There were times when there were five, six, seven or eight north-south lines. It was chaotic, unregulated and, in many ways, stupid and wasteful.”
A few decades later there was a period of consolidation when the competitor companies combined and “a certain amount of order was brought to the process”.
Jenkins then goes into a lengthy linear narrative, describing in authoritative detail how the advent of steel as a construction material allowed the wealthy railway companies to display their power in magnificent London railway terminals. “But it is something of a misconception that the stations were all designed simply to be imposing. In fact, the earlier ones were designed to be the opposite. They were meant to be unobtrusive, domestic and familiar to the passengers. Often they were built to blend in with country estate architecture.”
By the First World War this period of expansion stopped. “Everything collapsed. No new lines were built and the only activity was on the Underground in London, where there are some very interesting stations. After the Second World War modernisation killed the station stone dead.”
In the 1960s came the great decline and devastation of the railways under the ‘Beeching Axe’, in which Richard Beeching, chairman of British Rail, oversaw cuts to the network that were to result in a loss of thousands of miles of track. “He was a great man, but he was under the influence of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, who was ordering him to make the railway pay its way.” At this time, says Jenkins, the railway in Britain was essentially an industry in managed decline, in which “thousands of stations were lost”.
It wasn’t until the 1980s, when conservationists started to take Victorian architecture seriously, that anything was done to preserve the heritage of railway stations. The author recalls when he first got interested in stations as a boy, his parents would routinely ask him: “why are you interested in those things? They’re dirty, disgusting places.”
He thinks that the best thing we can do to preserve our station heritage is to “clean the wretched things”. And while in terms of preservation they may “lack the untouchability of churches and the legal protection of historic buildings”, there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their future. After their recent ‘decline and devastation’, Britain’s stations are undergoing a renaissance. And Jenkins is right: they do scrub up nicely, as a quick visit to King’s Cross or St Pancras will confirm.
‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’ by Simon Jenkins is published by Viking, £25.
Read Vitali Vitaliev’s review here
We read it for you
Railway stations are among the most neglected aspects of British architecture. The vast majority of them were built in the Victorian era, only to be abandoned to a cruel fate at the hands of a government that in the 1960s saw the railway as an industry in managed decline. Hundreds of stations were closed, but thankfully many survived, to be restored and returned to their former glory.
In his new book, ‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’, former Times newspaper editor Sir Simon Jenkins takes us on a tour of his personal favourites, from the most humble of request stops at Dolau to the industrial cathedral of Paddington.
In a brace of introductory essays the author takes us on a journey of the rise and unfortunate demise of the railway and its accompanying buildings, leaving us with a glimmer of hope that Britain is finally starting to take its station heritage seriously again.
The railway is not just a train. It is an industry wedded to time. It requires the meticulous management of people and machines under the rule of that immutable icon, the clock. It demands of its acolytes powers of memory and skill, rather than art or imagination. It appeals to so-called nerds, but in a manner that goes beyond crankshafts and timetables. The organisation of a railway is mesmeric, dedicated to certainty, reliability and predictability. Time is an absolute. A late car journey is just one of those things; a late train journey is an offence against order. The railway stands proxy for all of life’s journeys, from our hopeful beginnings to our intended ends.
To the early-Victorian imagination this proxy was widely seen as a monster. It was born of philistine capitalism, inducing in conservatives at every level of society a fear of change. The word ‘railway’ foretold an unknown and probably dangerous future – as once did the word ‘atomic’ or perhaps today’s ‘robotic’. The railway’s energy seemed demonic, and the path down which it led seemed frightening. Its promise of wealth drove men mad.
With this alarm went a widespread dismay at the aesthetic of the new railway and its buildings. John Ruskin was fascinated by steam engines, marveling at the ‘Titan hammer-strokes beating out these glittering cylinders and timely-respondent valves ... in noiseless gliding and omnipotence of grasp’. Yet, when it came to stations he was appalled. They displayed the worst manifestations of industrialisation. As he travelled the railway network, Ruskin saw his glorious landscapes ruined and images of his beloved Venice abused in station arches, columns and windows.Edited extract from ‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’ by Simon Jenkins, reproduced with permission