A review of ‘Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations’ by Simon Jenkins
Published in Hardcover 28 September 2017
Philip Larkin’s famous poem ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is a tale of a train journey from Hull to London on a hot Whitsun Saturday. Generally thought to have been based on an actual train journey made by Larkin at Whitsun in 1955, Larkin scholar John Osborne has said that such a journey could not have taken place because of a rail strike on Whitsun in 1955. Thus this poem is maybe a wry marriage between the poetry and the reality of train travel in the British Isles.
A more recent example of railway poetry and reality coming together, is in the small Welsh station of Dolau. Due to be demolished, Simon told me, a local action group was set up expressly for the purpose of campaigning to keep the station open as an unmanned request stop. Their activism was successful. They built a small hut on the platform following the demolition of the station buildings. Within this hut selected railway poems are affixed to the walls for the waiting traveller to enjoy.
As the title already makes clear, this book, then, is arranged as a list of 100 stations geographically grouped, following an introduction that takes the reader on a journey through the history of the railway in Britain. In addition, there is brief mention of stations that still stand but are no longer used as such.
There are a couple of reasons why he was attracted to writing a book about Britain’s stations, Simon tells me. The first, the more pragmatic of the two, was that there were many books written about trains themselves and many books about architecture, yet neither the train enthusiasts nor those with an architectural bent had bothered to turn their attention to stations. Leaving this gap unfilled would have been a shame.
The second embodies the spirit of Larkin’s poems. Scenes of arrival and departure, human emotion, excited hugs of reunion, tearful goodbyes, sights normally precluded from public view, but here visible to all, coupled with the anticipation of travel vividly demonstrated by immediacy of the trains themselves, once loud and steam-powered, today possibly electrified and very much faster.
Indeed, this second, emotional aspect reminds me of one of my childhood favourites – The Railway Children. The scene where the eldest, Bobbie, stands on the platform as the train arrives, steam everywhere, concealing the alighting passengers, finally sees her father, at last freed from wrongful imprisonment, and rushes towards him with shouts of ‘Daddy! My Daddy!’ is still the one to most reliably move me to tears. This is what Simon Jenkins calls the romance of the railway.
And yet, as we’re hurrying ourselves to get to the right platform, grab a newspaper and a coffee, buy a ticket and get on the train, we’re too focused on our immediate goal to pay attention to our surroundings. Simon Jenkins makes a powerful plea for us to stop and take a moment to really see the buildings in which all of this is taking place. And so this book is in part a lesson in architecture, both in the grand, over-arching sense presented to us at St. Pancras and a celebration of details, such as the capitals of the columns at Great Malvern station, which are described as ‘the most remarkable ironwork on the Victorian railways’.
As we read about the individual stations, their masterminds, their quirks and their defining features, we are treated to a pleasing sprinkle of cheerful descriptors – the aforementioned Great Malvern, a one-time retirement stronghold, is presented to us as an ‘upland Torquay’, while Carnforth spent decades being a ‘railway Purgatory’ – and all manner of quite interesting snippets that would surely please the likes of Stephen Fry.
I was surprised to learn about my local station, Exeter St David’s, that it had been there that a young publisher had the idea of replacing cardboard with paper as the material for book coverings to make them easier to read on a train. Simon Jenkins writes, ‘Exeter St David’s can thus claim to have inspired the paperback […]. A plaque on the station honours this event.’ I will go in search of it the next time I’m there.
I asked Simon Jenkins what it was he hoped his readers would take away from his book. His answer was two-fold. We all know that the big London termini such as King’s Cross are impressive buildings. We are even likely to recognise them in pictures. And they are undoubtedly outstanding feats of engineering wedded to architecture. However, he says he would like to draw more attention to lesser-known, yet splendid stations throughout the land, citing examples such as Norwich, Portsmouth or Carlisle. My favourite, leafing through this book with its many lovely colour photographs, is the striking art deco station of Surbiton, a place I’d hitherto only ever associated with Tom and Barbara from The Good Life.
The other takeaway he hoped for was that readers would appreciate stations as minor works of art. Obviously designed to suit their purpose and, because of their scale, be engineering marvels, stations display a unique commitment to architectural design and to bold beauty. Some, like Bristol Temple Meads, look like veritable cathedrals. Wemyss Bay, in Scotland, Simon Jenkins writes, ‘is one of the few stations that, in my opinion, qualify as a coherent work of art’, or indeed ‘science encased in art’. It is rightfully given the honour of being featured on the cover. Stations are unique in this way; airports and bus stations lack this kind of imagination.
All the stations in this book have been rated with one to five stars in an entirely subjective manner, as Simon Jenkins admits, acknowledging, ‘I am acutely aware of the often fierce partisanship of rail enthusiasts’. Though he is clearly less of a fan of Birmingham New Street than I am for example, I give this book a full five stars. It is a most enjoyable, informative read. The hardcover comes out today, 28 September 2017. When then the paperback is published, it would make for the most perfect book to read on a train journey, the pastime chosen by Philip Larkin too.
“At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading.”
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