Magazine

The beautiful stations of rail's golden age

Design for Manchester's Piccadilly Station, early 1960s Image copyright NRM
Image caption Design for Manchester's Piccadilly Station, early 1960s

After a long gap, railway stations are being built again. But once upon a time there were some very lovely stations indeed.

In the week when Birmingham's main station reopened after a £750m makeover, the National Railway Museum in York is using its latest exhibition to celebrate the architectural styles from the past that helped create "destination stations" across the UK.

Curved futuristic design on the outside - with a bright, airy feel on the inside - New Street station has been transformed by its 2015 revamp.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Birmingham's revamped New Street station, 2015

But the idea of making railway stations desirable places to visit in themselves - rather than just a place to travel to and from - is not new.

Ellen Tait, curator of the NRM's new exhibition Destination Stations, says "the first trains ran in the early 1830s - but by the 1840s you had a plethora of monumental buildings which serviced this new technology".

Image copyright NRM
Image caption Entrance to Birmingham's Curzon Street station, September 1838

"There was a bit of the Field of Dreams about it. The idea was 'if you build it, they will come'."

Birmingham's first station was Curzon Street - nearly half a mile to the east of New Street.

The image above shows the grand Palladian entrance shortly after it opened - with high arches, grand gates and tall columns. The image below is from 2013.

Tait says both railway companies and planners wanted to create city gateways, so travellers would know "they had arrived".

But Curzon Street station was only in use for about 15 years - until New Street and Snow Hill stations took over.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption Entrance to Birmingham's Curzon Street station, 2013

In the late 1820s and early 1830s, at the dawn of the railway age, says Tait, stations did not really exist in a way that we would recognise today. The earliest had no buildings and any structures which did exist were made of wood.

There would be no platforms and - as this next image of Parkside station, near Newton-le-Willows on the Liverpool to Manchester line, shows - passengers would climb up into carriages from ground level.

Image copyright NRM
Image caption Parkside station, Liverpool and Manchester Railway, 1830s-40s

Tait turns to a set of plans from 1835 from Network Rail's archive - possibly for London Bridge station.

This building was designed more like a business office than a station, she says.

Image copyright Network Rail
Image caption Possible plan of London Bridge station, July 1835

But things changed quickly and - just as with Curzon Street in Birmingham - distinctive and substantial buildings were soon built.

The next image depicts the giant Euston Arch in London - built in the late 1830s.

It was through these statement-making structures that railway companies demonstrated their belief that "trains were here to stay and the whole enterprise could be trusted financially", says Tait.

Image copyright NRM
Image caption Entrance to Euston Station, London, circa 1840s

But the Euston Arch had no practical purpose. It remained standing for more than 100 years, until the early 1960s.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Euston Arch, London, 1954

It was demolished, despite attempts by campaigners to save it.

Image copyright NRM
Image caption Dismantling the Euston Arch, 1961

Euston's Great Hall suffered the same fate.

Image copyright NRM
Image caption The Great Hall, Euston, London, 1950s

The whole station was replaced by a modern building which, says Tait, was more functional and practical.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Euston Station, London, 1968

Tait describes how railway companies would create plans and put up money for new stations - but town planners could rule on what was built.

Even in the mid-19th Century there was pressure on space in city centres.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Roof of Waverley Station on the left, Edinburgh, 1923

In Edinburgh, Waverley station was built low in the valley in between Princes Street and the Old Town - to minimise the impact on the look of Scotland's capital.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Waverley station, Edinburgh, 1950

Waverley station is distinctive because of its low, unobtrusive roof - but in the mid-1800s other stations became well known for the giant glass and iron structures which curved high over their platforms and tracks.

Image copyright NRM
Image caption Birmingham New Street station, 1870

When it opened in 1854, Birmingham's New Street station - above - featured the largest glass and iron roof in the world.

That record was broken less than 20 years later by St Pancras station in London.

Image copyright NRM
Image caption St Pancras station roof, London, 1867-8

Ellen Tait says there was a lot of talk at the time about the height of station roofs being unnecessary - but for the train companies it was all positive.

They were getting press coverage and "capturing hearts and minds".

Image copyright NRM
Image caption St Pancras station roof, London, 1868

The next set of images feature plans from the Network Rail archive for the roof at St Pancras.

Image copyright Network Rail
Image caption Plans for St Pancras station, London, 1860s

"To create a structure which didn't need support and columns within it was very complicated," says Tait.

Image copyright Network Rail
Image caption Plans for St Pancras station, London, 1860s

"They, in effect, created a false metal floor which held it all together. It was cutting edge at the time - an amazing achievement."

Image copyright Network Rail
Image caption Plans for St Pancras station, London, 1860s (detail)

More design challenges faced architects creating Newcastle upon Tyne's main station.

The building was created on a bend in the line - and so the roof had to be curved, with the rest of the building on a similar theme.

Image copyright NRM
Image caption Central station, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1850

The look was repeated at York's main station - which is next to the National Railway Museum.

"You get these giant vaulted structures with rolled-iron construction - which had been used previously in glasshouses," says Ellen Tait.

Image copyright NRM
Image caption York station, 1969

The elegant curves still get people excited, she continues.

"This next poster for InterCity from the 1990s focuses on the architecture built 100 years before."

Image copyright NRM
Image caption British Rail poster, 1991

"The idea was that the railway station was a gateway to your city," says Tait.

Styles varied across the country - in Bristol, Brunel added a Tudor-look to Temple Meads.

"It makes a statement, but still acknowledges the history and the architectural style of the area at the time."

Image copyright NRM
Image caption Bristol Temple Meads station, 1926

By the early part of the 20th Century, designs were changing.

The architects tasked with extending Glasgow Central Station looked to the USA for inspiration.

Image copyright Network Rail
Image caption Plans for Caledonian Railway Glasgow, Central Extension, circa 1900

They were trying to find better ways of managing thousands of people in a confined space - and so they built on a curved theme, with fewer right-angled corners, so people would flow through.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption Glasgow Central Station, 2011

Cardiff's main station was rebuilt by the Great Western Railway in the early 1930s.

Image copyright Network Rail
Image caption Plans for Cardiff Central station, 1930s

"It's very much of its time," says Tait, "with an art-deco simplicity to it".

"But it still has that monument feeling, with Great Western Railway carved in the stonework. It's classical in feel, if not in architecture."

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption Cardiff Central station, 2005

By the late 1950s there was a new nationalised railway infrastructure - a modernisation plan was introduced.

Ellen Tait says practical considerations - "like how do we get 10,000 passengers through here each day?" - often trumped architectural sensitivities.

"So you get things like the apron at King's Cross in London - big, black and blocky, and plonked on the front. It was all about needing more space - and quickly."

Image copyright NRM
Image caption King's Cross station entrance, London, date unknown

The apron hid the Victorian arches on the front of the building - which have now been restored.

Image copyright NRM
Image caption King's Cross Station, London, circa 1853
Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption King's Cross frontage, 2015

The early 1960s saw Manchester's main station revamped and renamed. Manchester London Road became Manchester Piccadilly.

The designers looked to the future - "it was part station, part shopping centre", says Tait.

Image copyright Network Rail
Image caption British Railways, Manchester London Road reconstruction, late 1950s/early 1960s

But while the front part of the station looked modern, the structure behind housing the trains and platforms remained unchanged.

Image copyright NRM
Image caption British Railways poster, circa 1960

At the end of the 20th Century, Grimshaw Architects looked back to the early years of the railways for inspiration - as they designed the first home for the Eurostar at Waterloo in London.

Image copyright Grimshaw Architects
Image caption Waterloo International, London

The long, snaking, glass-roofed structure was modern, says Ellen Tait. But it cast a nod to the Victorian train sheds from 100 years before.

Image copyright Grimshaw Architects
Image caption Waterloo International Station roof, London
Image copyright Grimshaw Architects
Image caption Waterloo International Station cross section, London

And ironically, Eurostar's second home is St Pancras - home of the giant curved roof.

The move breathed new life into the station which had fallen out of favour, and in effect says Tait, "rescued a beautiful piece of architecture".

Image copyright NRM
Image caption St Pancras International, London, 2011

The final image is an impressive photo of the recently refurbished Newcastle Central station - by Ryder Architecture - where giant arches have been filled with glass.

And for Ellen Tait it helps demonstrate how, for her at least, rail travel is not necessarily about the trains and the engineering - but instead it's about the travelling, and the "sense you have arrived somewhere".

Image copyright Ryder Architecture
Image caption Newcastle Central station, 2014

Destination Stations runs at the National Railway Museum in York from 25 September 2015 until 24 January 2016.

All images subject to copyright.

You might also like:

The architect who inspired our love of columns