Wednesday, December 10, 2014

On track

Steven Parissien, The English Railway Station
Published by English Heritage

The railway station does not appear prominently in most general histories of architecture. There will be the obligatory reference to the great Victorian train sheds – the cathedrals of steam – and their groundbreaking iron and glass roofs, and a nod in the direction of Charles Holden’s fine London Underground stations, but not much more. Even so, the widespread interest in railway history has produced a ready market for books on railway architecture and on stations in particular, and even I, no steam man, have a shelf of them. Quite a few are reference books that I return to regularly – Gordon Biddle and O. S. Nock’s The Railway Heritage of Britain and Biddle’s Britain’s Historic Railway Buildings, for example. There are wide-ranging works of social history, such as Richards and Mackenzie’s The Railway Station, works of narrower range like John Betjeman’s London’s Historic Railway Stations (with its lovely photographs by John Gay) and Gordon Biddle’s Victorian Stations, a clutch of books about the architecture of London’s Underground, and international surveys such as Carroll Meeks’s The Railroad Station and Steven Parissien’s Station to Station. It’s Steven Parissien who’s written this new book, The English Railway Station. I wondered when I saw it whether we needed another, but perhaps we do.

Parissien casts his net wide across England, covering not just the big termini but also town stations, rural stations, and halts. He covers not just the historic Victorian buildings but the railway stations of the 20th  and 21st centuries (yes, there are a few). Beginning with the origins of the British railways, he shows how the industry, beset by insecurity and financial scandal, had to build up the trust of the public – classical architecture, with its sense of solidity, lineage, and rectitude, helped at first; a Tudor revival style, sometimes homely, sometimes amusing, sometimes reassuringly redolent of old England, went down better later. Other styles were taken on board to express the corporate identities of specific railway companies or the talents of particular architects.

The careers of certain of those architects are highlighted – not just well known heroes such as Brunel and Hardwicke, but also notables like John Dobson (creator of the stunning Newcastle Central), David Mocatta (imposing Brighton), Sancton Wood (Tudor Stamford), George Townsend Andrews (monastic Gothic Richmond, Yorks), and several others. A succession of steep-gabled, Jacobethan, and brick-built structures illustrates an extended chapter on the country station. Still more variety, from Slough’s French Renaissance curves to the wonderful moderne radio cabinet of a station building at Surbiton, punctuates a chapter on the urban station.

Having brought the story up to World War II (via a short detour on to the Underground), there is the expected account of the decline of the country’s rail network, in which Parissien reminds us that Dr Beeching was not the only person to blame – lines and stations were closing in significant numbers well before Beeching’s destructive 1963 report led to still more shrinkage. The contraction carried on afterwards too. But there’s also room in the book for discerning accounts of more recent railway architecture. And it’s not all grim system-built tat, even in the 1960s. Manchester’s Oxford Road, Harlow Town, Barking, and Chichester all come in for praise. And more recently there are new stations as well as the much-lauded recent work at Kings Cross and St Pancras to feel good about.

So there’s a lot to admire here – accounts of unregarded buildings and little known architects, a broad overview of station architecture, and a sense that conservation work, railway preservation groups, creative reuse, and even the occasional recent new build give cause for optimism. The English Railway Station earns its place on the end of the railway shelf, next to Nock and Biddle.


Peter Ashley said...

Excellent. And I'd like to take a guess at the railway station pictured on the cover. Is it Westhumble? Between Leatherhead and Dorking, this is the station for all those ramblers about to ascend Box Hill.

Philip Wilkinson said...

You've got it in one. It's Westhumble - or Westhumble and Box Hill, to give the name in the caption, which was presumably the station's name when the photograph was taken.

Mindy said...

This railway station on the cover looks really magic <3

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I have just been reading John Ruskin on railway stations - he reckons it's wrong to waste architecture on such practical things. On this point, I think he's absolutely WRONG! You get a change while waiting for a train to see and enjoy - much better to be at Temple Meads or Bury St Edmunds or Great Malvern than (eek!) Bristol Parkway or (ugh!) Birmingham New Street.