Back on the rails again

The new York Council Offices being built on the site of the origional York railway station.
The new York Council Offices being built on the site of the origional York railway station.
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The dusk of George Hudson’s York station has led to dawn for a forgotten treasure. Michael Hickling reports

York is a place whose history has been picked over, prodded and investigated with such care, it surely couldn’t hold any more secrets.

But it did. A significant part of its rich heritage was so hidden and forgotten that most locals never even knew it was there.

Now the stripping back of a cluster of redundant offices and other buildings has revealed intact beneath two gems – the oldest railway hotel in the world and one of the oldest railway stations, dating from 1840.

The re-emergence of these relics from the beginning of the railway age also brings back into focus their builder, George Hudson, the greatest railway crook in the world.

The story of how this remarkable legacy came to be uncovered and given new life takes in a giant slice of York’s layer cake of history. It even brings into the picture the famous Roman IXth legion which marched north to quell the revolting Scots in the first century AD and was never seen again.

Hudson, a politician as well as an industrialist, brought the trains to York with his York and North Midland railway. He’d persuaded his friend and rival George Stephenson to route his Great North of England Railway in this direction and Stephenson also built a bridge over the Ouse to take trains to Scarborough.

The original York station had two facing platforms with a ticket office and waiting rooms. Hudson and Stephenson both worked from offices here, but as far apart as possible. The first railway hotel was built to join the two platforms at the city end in 1852.

Hudson wanted his station as close to York’s centre as possible. This required the knocking through of part of the ancient bar walls to gain access and the construction of brick arches, faced with stone, through which the trains could pass.

In recent years cracks appeared here where the mortar had eroded. The cost of repair was £460,000 and the owner would have to foot the bill. But who was it? The best guess was that it was part of the old British Rail estate and responsibility now lay with one of BR’s residual bodies.

To check it out, the original contract was unearthed in the York record office. The Lord Mayor and the railway boss had signed an agreement that once the job was completed, the railway would have no further responsibility for maintaining the arches.

The Lord Mayor and the railway boss were the same person – George Hudson.

He had adroitly shifted the liability from his investors (whom he would eventually defraud on a scale not to be seen again until the days of Bernie Madoff) and on to York’s citizens.

Hubris played its part in Hudson’s choice of site for his station. He wanted to impress the city where where he had once worked as a draper’s assistant. But it proved a poor decision. As a terminus it was impractical. Railway traffic to the north increased and York became a bottleneck with each journey involving a rigmarole of switching engines and reversing.

Within 27 years of the station being built, plans were drawn up by Thomas Prosser for a new one able to take through trains. That was eventually given the go-ahead and is the one still used today.

For all that subsequent generations of passengers travelling up and down the main east coast line knew, Hudson’s original York station, hidden on the other side of the bar walls, might never have existed.

Lost amid a huddle of later buildings, it occupied a blank spot at the back of the war memorial where people had no particular reason to go.

Now it’s in the process of becoming a new council headquarters. Opened-out and re-fashioned it will be for York that rare thing, an interesting modern building.

It will stand in the foreground of that famous view from the bar walls walkway of the west front of York Minster.

For the council this also represents a huge turnabout in fortune. They had wanted a new headquarters across the city in Hungate and pressed ahead despite popular resistance. It became a financial and public relations disaster when they pulled out and handed local taxpayers a huge bill for nothing in return.

After the Hungate fiasco, the council held an open competition for developers in 2008. This threw up the fact that a far better idea was ready and waiting to get going. Instead of getting the locals’ backs up, this one would tick every box they you could wish for.

It has a York architect and is a joint project of Harrison developments of York and Buccleuch Property. The main contractors, Miller Construction, started on site at the beginning of this year.

On a trip round the site, Stephen McFadden, the project manager, said it’s the most interesting job he’s ever worked on. There was a lot of structural steel work going up, but the great joy is that they are re-using the old grade II star listed building as it was designed to be used. Ian Asher, head of the council’s strategic business and design, says, “It’s a good fit – there’s no fighting the original building.”

It will cost £32m to build, £43.8m all told and will replace a warren of 16 council offices in a Georgian terrace near the Theatre Royal. Its green credentials far exceed building regulations and are typified by the fact that there will be hardly any car parking. Instead it will have 300 cycle places and a “green travel plan” for staff.

Original features later covered up by modern panelling have been revealed and retained, such as architraves. Stripping back the lead-based paint in windows and skirting boards has been a task for apprentices from York College. They’ve had architectural students coming in doing dissertations.

George Hudson’s old boardroom will become the largest public meeting room for the council. Once it’s open, the new footfall should also rescue this part of the city. And since it runs parallel with Micklegate, that should be lifted too. York’s most noble street has found it hard going economically in recent times.

The new building also ticks all the boxes for John Oxley, the city archaeologist. It has made possible the intensive investigation of a site well worked over in previous ages by non-experts.

A new dig should help to pull together what went before and make clearer a partial picture uncovered during the largely unrecorded times of Victorian navvies and later by builders doing a rush job just as the Second World War was breaking out.

Starting in 1840, Victorian navvies shifted millions of cubic metres of soil here with their shovels, not much bothered by the fact that they were burrowing into one of the richest archaeological sites in the country. In the process most of an extensive Roman bath complex was destroyed.

The workmen were offered cash for things their shovels turned up by gentlemen of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society from just over Lendal Bridge. These Victorian antiquarians would also come by to make rudimentary sketches of what was happening.

Further major digging took place here in 1939 when the adjacent earth embankment was tunnelled into for the building of an air raid centre.

Also known to be on this site was a Dominican Friary dating from 1227 with church, chapter house and cemetery. For most of it there’s practically no record.

The Romans terraced the hillside – timber structures here date from the first century AD. In the recent archeological survey of an area measuring six metres by about 25 metres, trenches for moving water about were discovered. Experts also found two types of re-used tiles, probably made locally at a pottery on the River Foss.

One type of tile has the stamp of the IXth legion. The legend of their disappearance into the mists of Caledonia became the stuff of Hollywood film studios last year.

That event happened around 115-120AD, which helps date this site.

It may have been part of a single Roman complex. And here’s the tantalising thing.

Roman York would have needed somewhere to accommodate the world’s most important man. Septimus Severus, campaigning against the Scots, died in York in 211AD. The following century saw Constantine acclaimed Roman Emperor here.

So it’s possible that the baths complex on the railway station site is just part of something huge, a place fit to entertain the head of the greatest empire in the world.

There could be a palace from this spot on the slope beside Micklegate that stretches all the way down to the river.

But what lay beneath the new council headquarters – and a new 119- bedroom Hampton by Hilton hotel to open next summer – will be gone.

“It’s controlled destruction,” says John Oxley. “Nothing is left in situ. There will be displays in the new offices, so visitors will get a feel of the Roman landscape of 2,000 years ago. The old station is a very important historical building and it will become a public building once again. The booking office and the old entrance will be the main entrance to the council offices. It’s an example of how to make the best use of the historical environment which will give people access to the past. I’m really pleased it’s happened.”