In search of Britain’s best railway stations

The Ribblehead station might be close to the iconic viaduct, but it only gets one star in Simon Jenkins' book. PIC: Charlotte Graham/Guzelian
The Ribblehead station might be close to the iconic viaduct, but it only gets one star in Simon Jenkins' book. PIC: Charlotte Graham/Guzelian
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Historian Simon Jenkins has travelled the length and breadth of Britain in search of our best railway stations. Stephen McClarence climbs aboard for a celebration of architecture, engineering and social history.

Two or three times most weeks, I rush through Sheffield station to catch a train to Somewhere Else. I rush to buy a ticket, a sandwich and a coffee, and then rush a bit more to get to the right platform. While I’m doing all this rushing, I generally register how light and airy the concourse is, and how busy with the excitement of arrivals and departures. But I take it – and the fountains and water sculptures outside – for granted. They’re part of my working landscape.

I’ll be looking at all this rather differently after reading Simon Jenkins’ description of the station in his new, absorbing and dazzlingly illustrated Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations. Nowhere, he writes, is Sheffield’s “hesitant renaissance” more evident than at its station. At night, the surrounding area recedes into darkness and lighting picks out the building’s frontage. “For a brief moment, Sheffield becomes the Rome of the North, with the Baths of Caracalla and the Trevi Fountain in the foreground.” Well, it’s a change from “Sheffield – home of The Full Monty”.

Sheffield is one of nine Yorkshire stations (10 if you include Middlesbrough in Yorkshire) among the 100 featured in this follow-up to Jenkins’s much-read England’s Thousand Best Churches and England’s Thousand Best Houses. The difference – apart from the more modest tally of entries and the broader geographical scope – is that churches and fine houses are destinations, but stations are traditionally seen as just stations, everyday, workaday buildings, built to function not delight.

Many of us may spend considerably more time in them than in churches or stately homes, but all too often we’ve undervalued them, however fine their architecture.

Their cause hasn’t been helped by one of the greatest Victorian architects, Sir George Gilbert Scott. After completing St Pancras station, he loftily declared not just that it was the finest building in London, but “my own belief is that it is possibly too good for its purpose”. As though he was slumming it.

Jenkins nominates St Pancras as Britain’s overall “best” station (there are 2,560 main-line ones, plus hundreds more on “heritage lines”). He calls it “truly a station apart” and outlines the hard-fought campaign to save it from demolition, restore it and create the glorious, uplifting place it is today: a “destination station” in its own right.

Soon after its restoration, my wife and I stayed at the adjoining St Pancras Hotel and were given a room with a huge arched window overlooking the platforms. We spent the evening gazing out, entranced by the comings and goings. Before going to bed, we set the alarm so we wouldn’t miss the day’s first Eurostar edging in from Paris. It encapsulated the glamour of continental travel, or perhaps a worrying hint of the anorak.

Similarly, on a more down-to-earth Northern level, part of the appeal of the sadly now-closed George Hotel in Huddersfield was its front bedrooms. They gave you a grandstand view of early morning commuters scurrying out of the station on their urgent way to work, past the striding statue of Harold Wilson looking just as urgent as he stuffs his pipe into his jacket pocket.

Jenkins reckons Huddersfield is “England’s handsomest small station... one of the few stations fit to rank with the great union termini of the Continent”. Betjeman, first patron saint of railways (the second is St Michael of Portillo), declared that it had “the most splendid facade in England”.

“Entering under the portico,” writes Jenkins, “we expect Huddersfield’s celebrated choral society to be incanting a march from Aida.”

The book evokes “the timeless experiences of coming and going, meeting, greeting and parting” which stations offer. It deftly puts the architecture in its historical context, tracing the recent renaissance of railways after decades of decline.

And it often broadens out the social and psychological picture. Railways, says Jenkins, are “dedicated to certainty, reliability and predictability. Time is an absolute. Not for nothing did ‘making the trains run on time’ enter the psyche of 20th-century dictators. A late car journey is just one of those things. A late train journey is an offence against order.”

Many of his choices celebrate once-despised Victorian stations – those great secular cathedrals that were cheerfully demolished in their hundreds to make way for modernism. “Yet these buildings,” he writes, “were as much a celebration of the Victorian age as were treasured mansions of the Tudor, Stuart and Georgian periods.”

The book isn’t, however, an unqualified paean of praise. Take the opening paragraph about Hull station – like Huddersfield awarded four stars (Sheffield gets three): “I am torn between lauding Hull Paragon as an unsung masterpiece of the railway age, and pleading for it to be rescued from its owners and taken into care.

“Of all the damage inflicted on this proud city since the Second World War, few examples were more botched than the 2007 rebranding of its station as a bus and rail interchange.” He particularly castigates the squandering of the art nouveau booking hall, “ranking with that of St Pancras as among the finest in Britain... It is currently used as a bicycle store and has plastic cubicles for ‘small businesses’.”

There’s also a touch of scepticism about two-star Hebden Bridge station – “as self-conscious as the town it serves”. Notices, he says, proclaim Hebden Bridge as “the ‘year-round Glastonbury of the North’, magnet to artists, foodies, gays, lesbians and writers... In 2005, a poll voted it ‘fourth funkiest town in the world’. I forget the other three.” (They were in Australia, Brazil and the US.) He has nothing but praise, though, for the station’s Friends group, which has made it “a true community centre”.

Jenkins says his criteria for including a station were “entirely personal”, taking in architectural beauty, eccentricity and setting. Setting is certainly part of the appeal of one-star Ribblehead on the Settle-Carlisle line (“If there is a wilder spot in England I don’t know it”).

Two-star Whitby is also strong on setting. For all the charm of the station buildings, its great lure is the glorious journey there from Middlesbrough (three stars) along the Esk Valley Line – “at least in fine weather, one of the glories of the North... Ash and alder shade tumbling rivers as they tease the railway to leap from left bank to right, from one bridge to another.”

The description and analysis are fleshed out with the odd telling anecdote. Jenkins mentions that “Margaret Thatcher disliked trains, having once been accosted on one, although she was sensitive to the public’s affection for them. ‘People love them too much,’ she once told me while adamantly refusing to countenance privatisation.”

He also offers some neat vignettes. The last time he was at two-star Beverley station, for instance, “a scattering of passengers were sitting quietly on the green benches looking across the tracks at each other. It was like a Quaker meeting house, waiting for someone to speak.”

Beverley might strike some as a curious choice. Similarly one-star Goathland (“the station building might be a Brontë rectory”). You could argue that Bridlington, with its summer flowers and fine vintage buffet, or Skipton, with its wrought ironwork, are just as worthy of a star or two, but neither is included.

It’s hard, though, to quibble with the omission of Leeds station, whose bustle is fretful and draining rather than invigorating. It has the scale but none of the uplifting atmosphere of a great station.

Unlike – and here’s the best saved to last – York station, up there in the five-star national Top 10 with Newcastle Central, Glasgow Central, Liverpool Lime Street, Bristol Temple Meads and four London termini (St Pancras, King’s Cross, Paddington and Liverpool Street). Plus, less predictably, the station chosen for the dust jacket – Wemyss Bay in Scotland (“one of the few stations that, in my opinion, qualify as a coherent work of art”).

Surely Edinburgh Waverley (inexplicably just two-star) should be up there with them? Or maybe I’m biased. Bristling with capital-city energy, it has been the start of so many wonderful Scottish holidays.

There’s nothing controversial about York’s inclusion, of course. Jenkins suggests it’s Britain’s most lovable provincial station. Its great curves – of platform and roof – lift the spirit.

And the passengers – the race crowds, the stag and hen parties, the trippers on their way to the coast – offer endless entertainment. There can be fewer more pleasant ways to start an evening than having a drink at one of the York Tap’s platform tables, watching the trains sweeping in and out.

Without the inevitable tension of catching a train yourself, you notice so much more. Though probably not as much as Simon Jenkins has.

■ Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations, Viking, £25. Simon Jenkins will be talking about the book next Saturday (7.30pm) during the Ilkley Literature Festival (ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk) and on October 15 (3pm) during Sheffield’s Off the Shelf festival (offtheshelf.co.uk).