While I’m waiting on York station for my train home, I stroll up and down the platform and do a bit of nebbing. A man with a blue plastic shoulder bag is rushing excitedly around, taking countless photos of a freight train trundling past, wagons piled high with rocks. Four young people dressed in black are standing in a tight group, talking frenetically while working their way through the packaged sandwiches in their hands; like a low-budget cocktail party.
Around 68 per cent of the other waiting passengers are in deep communion with their mobiles/iPads/tablets – absorbed in the world of Elsewhere. Hardly anyone is paying much attention to the station itself, a railway wonder with its ribbed roof, as elegant as any cathedral’s, and its curving platforms, and its trains sweeping sleekly in, giving a sense of occasion and anticipation to even the 14.24 to Garforth.
“People pass through stations but often don’t really notice them,” says Ellen Tait. “So what we’re hoping is that people will go home from this exhibition to their home station and have another look at it.”
“This exhibition” is Destination Stations, which opens later this month at the National Railway Museum, just round the corner from York station. Nicely timed for the museum’s 40th anniversary, it raids the archives to celebrate the architectural history of Britain’s stations. Promising models, architectural fragments and, intriguingly, “computer-generated fly-throughs”, it traces their evolution from their early strictly functional days to today’s vision of stations as retail and leisure centres in their own right.
“We realised what a wealth of material we had about architectural history, but it was a story we hadn’t really told before,” says Ellen, one of the exhibition’s organisers. “And as with all museums, a lot of the collection is never on public display.”
What a collection it is – more than 1,000 paintings, 2,300 prints and drawings, 11,200 posters, 25,000 books and an astonishing 1.75 million photographs.
Here’s Scarborough station in 1898, with its First Class Refreshment Room and its long, broad platforms waiting for an invasion by holiday-makers surging to the sea.
Here’s Sheffield Midland on an overcast March morning in 1961 with the stark arches that would be glassed in 40 or so years later and incorporated in a bright new travel centre. Here’s York itself around 1970, little different from how it looks today, apart from a waiting passenger’s floral mini-dress and floppy flower-power hat.
And here are long queues of passengers under the forest of ironwork that was Bradford Exchange in 1916. Closed in 1973, it was demolished three years later and replaced by the utilitarian Interchange, a pitifully underwhelming way to arrive in a major city. As underwhelming as Harrogate’s stark and charmless Sixties station.
Compare it with Huddersfield, whose Victorian station – a “stately home of the railways”, as people often say – simply lifts the spirit. “The scale on which it’s built is amazing,” says Ellen. “After all, with the greatest of respect, Huddersfield’s not London, is it?”
London stations figure prominently in the exhibition, notably Euston, a high point of Victorian railway architecture whose fate anticipated that of Bradford Exchange. With a celebrated triumphal arch that Romans would have been proud to march through, and a towering Great Hall, all pillars and staircases and statues, it became a cause célèbre when it was demolished in the Sixties. Little survives of the old buildings, though the museum houses the original wrought-iron gates, painted black and gold, and on permanent display.
Ellen pulls open a drawer and reveals architects’ drawings of both the original Euston, spacious and gracious, and a proposed Thirties replacement for both it and St Pancras. This vast monolith, Soviet in scale, thankfully never got beyond the drawing board.
When it was built, Euston had been a vote of confidence in the future. “There was a feeling that the railway companies were doing something for Britain,” says Ellen. “It was a kind of empire building, creating grand and stately buildings that reflected a grand and stately nation.” Aptly, it opened exactly a month after Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837. The companies competed to outdo each other in the lavishness of their stations – only a few years after the launch of the railways, when stations had been as rudimentary as bus stops.
“Initially the companies didn’t provide anything for the passengers. You’d have somewhere to buy a ticket and somewhere to have a sit down, but no buffet,” says Ellen. “They expected that the way railways would take off would be through freight. Station canopies were built to protect the trains and the goods they were carrying, rather than the passengers.”
Then as now, station architecture reflected the priorities of the society it served. Look at the recent rail revival and the way bigger stations now mirror airports’ retail preoccupations. It has led to the creation of the sort of “destination stations” that give the exhibition its title.
Among the greatest success stories have been the two London termini from Yorkshire and beyond – the “absolutely gorgeous”, as Ellen puts it, redevelopment of St Pancras and King’s Cross – “environments you might want to linger in rather than just pass through”.
Conservationists’ opposition to the demolition of St Pancras was given impetus by the outcry over what had happened to Euston. These days, it’s a joy to visit with its restaurants and bars (ideally staying at the magnificent St Pancras Hotel, which vibrates with railway history).
A gloomy barn 20 years ago, it’s now as busy as it was in 1910 when a Midland Railway poster showed it pulsating with passengers, hurrying to trains that sent plumes of Edwardian smoke twirling up to the rafters. “Picturesque scenery” it promised. “Best Restaurant Service”.
Its urgent activity is echoed in the museum’s vast painting of Waterloo in 1967 by the railway artist Terence Cuneo. What hustle, what bustle, all these men in flat caps and trilbys rushing for the 12.25 to Clapham Junction, and women in head scarves, and policemen in helmets.
With mail sacks piled up on the platforms and a gasp of steam from some of the engines, children are feeding the pigeons, and there’s a bearded man in a mack with what looks like an artist’s folder under his arm: the young Cuneo?
For iPad, in his case read sketch pad.
YORKSHIRE’S TEN BEST RAILWAY STATIONS
• Bridlington: Full of charm, beautifully maintained (with summer flowers) and an excellent buffet.
• Dent: Spectacularly windblown on the Settle-Carlisle line, its platform buildings have become cosy holiday lets. Perfect for Railway Children.
• Hebden Bridge: Time-warped, massively full of character, a treasury of period detail, wonderfully maintained, locally cherished.
• Huddersfield: An enduring survivor of the railways’ Victorian heyday, with excellent places to eat and drink while you wait.
• Hull: A spacious, relaxing station. Urbane (if stations can be urbane), a perfect gateway to the city and full of Philip Larkin memories.
• Keighley: Nicely combines a modern station with a heritage one (for the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway).
• Saltaire: No frills, but delivers you straight into the fascinating little town; particularly atmospheric in swirling winter fogs.
• Sheffield (Pictured): A sociable station that shows how refurbishment (and a well-used public piano) can create a favourable first impression of a city.
• Skipton: Delightfully pretty station, full of wrought iron and fancy architectural detail.
• York: Perhaps the greatest of the East Coast Main Line stations, outdoing even Darlington, Newcastle and Edinburgh.
• Destination Stations runs at the National Railway Museum, York, from September 25 to January 24 (2016). Free entry. 0844 8153 139; www.nrm.org.uk.