Where to Wait for a Train
The first time I took the Elizabeth Line to Heathrow, I got a surprise. A nice one. Imagining I’d be seeing shiny glass and steel stations all the way, I kept my head down. Then we stopped at Hanwell. I looked up and what did I see? A cheerful brown and cream waiting shelter where I’d be happy to wait for a train.
What a relief! The shelter was made of wood, not glass and steel. It had tongue-and-groove boarding in the panels, nicely bevelled frames and slender uprights topped with decorative corbels. Don’t get me wrong. It was not fussy. It was a simple design, competently executed by skilled joiners. But such a joy, because these were natural materials, turned by hand into a place where a human being might feel at home.
If you wanted to get out of the cold, the waiting room had a warm and cosy feeling, glassed in but not made of glass, mercifully free of steel.
Sitting here would be a completely different experience from entering a glass and steel box with a motorized sliding door and no design at all.
A week before, I had been waiting for a train at Gatwick Airport and seen just such a box. Hoping my eye might alight on something of interest to while away the next four minutes, I took in my surroundings. They were so dismal I took a picture.
What in humanity’s name is good about this?
What do you see here? Steel and glass structures sliced off at the top, without any cornice or roof line, finished with heavy horizontals, shorn of all decoration. Boxes and rectangles. No uplift. Who on earth imagines that this is an architectural embrace to offer a human being? The grammar is blank, bleak, graceless. Ascetic, even antiseptic. Four minutes here would be an eternity.
You would be shielded from wind and rain, but you would derive no pleasure. You would have function but no form. Utility but no joy. Convenience but nihil plus. Architectural nihilism. And that’s what you get almost everywhere the built environment dates from the mid-20th century onwards.
‘The look of modern buildings is a catastrophe,’ said the designer Thomas Heatherwick to Henry Mance of the Financial Times in an interview last month. Our cities are gripped by an ‘epidemic of boringness’, he argues. We are so used to seeing faceless buildings that we have become desensitized. We no longer expect pleasure where we walk or wait. We march on with our eyes averted, our spirits deadened. Heatherwick is writing a book called Humanise to make his point.
There are better ways to design
Others are taking matters into their own hands, seeking to preserve what is humane and uplifting that has survived from richer times – not necessarily more costly to build, but richer in outlook, richer in ideas, richer in design.
Since William Morris and Philip Webb founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877, architectural conservation has flowed like an undercurrent beneath the waves of urban renewal, cossetting remnants of the past in little protected eddies. On the railways, the movement took hold after the destruction of the Euston Arch when, under the leadership of Sir Simon Jenkins, as he now is, The Railway Heritage Trust was formed in 1985 with the railway enthusiast Sir Willam McAlpine as its Chairman.
With the support of the British Railways Board and its successors, the Trust has since helped restore scores of stations, viaducts and other railway structures, listed and unlisted, awarding millions of pounds in grants.
Hanwell is one of the stations that has benefitted. A survivor from the original Great Western Railway, it is a second-generation station built in 1877 and the centre island platform building I saw on my trip to Heathrow is listed Grade II. It has a ‘delightful canopy,’ writes Gordon Biddle in The Railway Heritage of Britain, ‘decorated with a saw-tooth valance that extends across the ends around a deep Gothic cut-out gable’. Some of the original GWR station name boards have survived, and The Railway Heritage Trust recently awarded a grant to repair one that blew down in a storm.
Why bother, you might ask? If it’s getting rickety in its old age, why not throw it away? It’s a left-over from the past, isn’t it? We don’t do things that way any more. Bin it and move on.
But the local civic society wanted to keep it, and The Railway Heritage Trust agreed. They provided a grant. Are they misguided do-gooders? Oh-too-earnest tweed jackets?
I have been a member of the Advisory Panel of The Railway Heritage Trust since its foundation. Last month I attended the Panel’s annual London meeting. Instead of convening in a concrete-box office at Euston Station, as happens usually, the Trust’s Executive Director Tim Hedley-Jones decided that we should meet at an active railway heritage site, in the waiting room at Peckham Rye Station. Arriving on an Overground train, this is what I saw.
What a relief!
This was clearly no concrete box. The mansard roof, beautifully repaired and reclad, soars upwards to floral iron cresting whose gilded finials lift your spirits. The rear pavilions have been magnificently re-roofed and re-guttered. Although the side facing the track has been defaced, and an extension between the pavilions illustrates the decline in architectural standards that was already setting in by the 1930s, you enjoy an instant sense of occasion, of splendour, grandeur.
To reach the waiting room, we ascended a staircase with Art Nouveau iron balusters that made me think of going up to the Gallery at the Royal Albert Hall, but with its peeling paint it had the exciting look of having been rediscovered after a long time bricked up.
Which it had. The architect in charge of the restoration of Peckham Rye Station, Benedict O’Looney, explained that he had found the staircase by almost falling through a hole in the floor. This pavilion had been closed off in the 1930s and the stairwell floored over. The waiting room to which it led had also been closed, the plaster ceiling pulled down after a small fire, the windows bricked up and the space abandoned since the 1980s.
And what a space it is! It could be a ballroom. For a long time, it was a Billiard Hall. In its present distressed state, it is reminiscent of the Grand Hall at Battersea Arts Centre after the fire of 2015.
A palace for passengers
Peckham Rye was part of a design for the London Brighton & South Coast Railway by Charles Henry Driver, one of the world leaders in design and its application to industry in the 1860s. Driver’s circle included Prince Albert, Henry Cole, proposer of the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, Matthew Digby Wyatt, who collaborated with Isambard Kingdom Brunel on Paddington Station and became Secretary of the Great Exhibition, Thomas Jekyll, a leading light in the Aesthetic Movement, the influential design theorist, Owen Jones, the engineer Thomas Bazalgette and a host of other luminaries.
The railway poured serious money into the project and Driver set out to show what you could do with the avant garde use of decorative metalwork and motifs borrowed from the Islamic world. As Benedict O’Looney pointed out, Driver probably had a copy of Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament by his drawing board as he worked. This was to be a new language of railway architecture, on a par with the great museums, but for the everyday use of the common man.
Opened in 1865, Peckham Rye was to be an important junction where people could change trains for Crystal Palace after it was re-erected in south London. Today, with finance from Network Rail and The Railway Heritage Trust, it is being brought back little by little to its former glory, and when a 1930s extension on the forecourt is removed, the Italianate splendour of its frontage will be revealed. The genuinely exciting work of restoration is returning the station to its role as a hub of local life. Now that the brickwork has been cleaned and repointed, you can see details like the decorative keystones that embellish the round-arched windows.
In the railway environment, as in any town or cityscape, you need something to attract the eye. Once you’re settled on a bench, waiting for a train, what are you to look at? A sheet of glass or steel? The answer is a dirty word, anathema to contemporary architects. What the man on the Clapham omnibus would like is a bit of decoration. I speak as a man who had just arrived from Clapham. I am not trained as an architect, but I am constantly on the look-out for interesting decorative features. I suspect I have other non-architects on my side. As Thomas Heatherwick says, ‘Every single person is an expert in buildings.’ We are all looking.
Decoration was dismissed as a bourgeois aberration by the Bauhaus School a century ago, and lack of it has been the architectural canon ever since. But come on! We no longer have a bourgeoisie, an ancien régime as we did at the end of the First World War. Socially we have flattened out. So why are we still caught up in the architectural equivalent of a Bolshevik revolution? The distaste for decoration has brought us minimalism and there is no joy in it.
Who wants to go and see Gatwick?
Paddington or St Pancras could be on your bucket list, though.
Where would you like to wait for a train?
Trimley is often referred to as the worst station in the country. Under the care of Greater Anglia, it is one of many stations in Suffolk and Norfolk that lie disused and boarded up. Its dereliction is sad to see, all the more so because it has a cottage orné delight in its design. Trimley Station Community Trust is seeking to save it, but the sticking point is said to be that oft-cited requirement in railway conservation, a new use. Is there a local restauranteur, café owner, pilates coach, gallerist who might like to use it? So goes the mantra repeated by many a railway company.
To arrive at a boarded-up country station is depressing. Even worse is to arrive at an empty platform, adorned perhaps with a glass-and-steel bus shelter. You can feel in your bones the ghostly absence of what has been lost.
Train or car?
The decision whether to travel by train or drive is always finely balanced. Service unreliability is the first reason to choose the car, but the travelling environment is important, too. Not just the comfort of the carriages, but also the built environment through which you travel: stations, viaducts, bridges, lineside buildings. To alight at a country station with hanging baskets of flowers, attractive lanterns, comfortable waiting rooms – that is an inducement.
A well-designed, decorative station building is a marketing asset. It is hard to fathom the argument of a railway company complaining that they need to find a use for it before they will repair it. What about using it for your passengers?
Another boarded-up station in Suffolk was Saxmundham. I have used it many times. Until recently, I had to sit among scaffolding and safety barriers to wait for my train. Squatters got into the waiting room and set the building on fire, so when the railway finally repaired and reopened it, with help from the Friends of Saxmundham Station, they had fewer original features to work with. Now you can sweep into the car park and walk into the waiting room, as you would hope to do when arriving at a railway station. Renovated, the waiting room is corporate in style, lacking architectural detail, but at least it’s open and the station has not been knocked down.
In my blog last year on Railway Renovation, I illustrated the reopening of the waiting room at Eynsford Station in Kent, a highly popular improvement spearheaded by Sevenoaks Town Council, Darent Valley Community Rail Partnership, Southeastern and Govia Thameslink Railway. Now the Community Partnership have got together with Network Rail and restored the waiting shelter on the other platform, completing a charming home from home for their passengers and bringing back to life the original welcome conceived by the London, Chatham & Dover Railway. They have even hung seven paintings by local artists on the wall. Now you can happily wait for a train on either the down or the up platform.
Decoration is coming back
Last year I described the renovation of Findlater’s Corner at London Bridge being carried out by Arch Co. , who have taken over the arches on the railway estate. The decorative faience façade of this former wine merchant’s has now been cleaned and repaired and the shop is being offered for lease, along with an adjoining tearoom and other shops. What had been a scene of dereliction has become an attraction for weary eyes. Decoration has been embraced and celebrated.
Also discovered was an elegant arch decoration which lifts a murky dive under industrial infrastructure into what might be an entrance to the Baths of Diocletian.