steam train in front of  Station
Sir Nigel Gresley, Steam Locomotive. At Grosmont Station on the North Yorkshire Moors railway. © Historic England, Derek Kendall
Sir Nigel Gresley, Steam Locomotive. At Grosmont Station on the North Yorkshire Moors railway. © Historic England, Derek Kendall

The English Railway Station

The first-ever national survey of these iconic structures has been published by Historic England.

The English Railway Station (Parissien 2014) is an accessible, engaging, and comprehensively illustrated general history of the architectural development and social history of this iconic building type. It covers the entire history of the station, from the dawn of the Railway Age, through the ravages of the 1960s, and onto the rebirth of the form at the end of the 20th century. Tracing how the station evolved into a recognisable building type, the book examines the great 'cathedral' railway termini alongside the evocative country stations of the Victorian era, and looks at how the railway station has, over the last fifty years, regained its place at the heart of our communities.

The absence of such a book before now is a surprising one. Before 1980, the endless shelves of literature on the railways of Britain contained almost no books on the subject at all. Even the best-illustrated and most authoritative of railway studies, though they covered such subjects as signal boxes and track layout in exhaustive detail, lacked illustrations or information on the stations themselves. Likewise very few internet sites provide views historic or contemporary of England's railway stations.

The lack of authoritative pictorial sources extended to Swindon. Historic England's impressive photographic archive includes unexpectedly few stations, with the notable exception of the collection of postcard-photographs amassed by the Rev H D E Rokeby (1904-69). Even then, Rokeby's evocative views, often quickly snapped from the carriage or platform as his train paused at a particular stop, frequently failed to show the principal station buildings.

Site visits, then, played a crucial role in research for the book. While many fine main-line stations, such as (famously) King's Cross, London (Lewis Cubitt, 1850-2), have seen award winning programmes of adaptation and refurbishment, other research visits were rather deflating. The delightful 1846 cottage ornée at Fenny Stratford, on the Bletchley-Bedford section of the long-defunct 'Varsity Line', turned out on inspection to be empty and deteriorating. The Great Western Railway's Cirencester Town - a fine, two-storey building of 1841-3 by Brunel and his assistant R P Brereton, marred by insensitive remodelling in the late 1950s -- now lies stranded in the middle of a car park in the centre of town. And all traces of the impressive 1873 brick station at Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire (closed in 1970) have vanished, save for a short section of platform in a municipal garden.

Perhaps the most depressing visit of all was to Wakefield Kirkgate in Yorkshire. Here the deteriorating station of 1854 was partly demolished in 1972, when the remaining historic fabric was pared back so that all the service pipes and wires can now be seen. Kirkgate's future remained uncertain even after it was listed in 1979, and in 2009 the station was branded the worst in the country by the then Transport Minister, Lord Adonis. Thankfully, Wakefield Council has unveiled a comprehensive development scheme for the building. More depressing still were visits to sites where the line still operates but the stations have been unnecessarily razed. The fine Brunel station at Marlow was needlessly demolished soon after 1967, and trains now pull up at a tarmacked platform.

Likewise, some former railway stations retain much character, but others have been mutilated almost beyond recognition. Brunel's handsome symmetrical Italianate design at Chard Central, Somerset survives as offices, although the line has long gone. Closed in 1957, William Hurst's splendid station of 1856 at Stamford East in Lincolnshire survives as the private house which it always resembled. The stone station at Wadebridge, Cornwall, immortalised in verse by John Betjeman but closed in 1967, survives as a daycare facility -- named, appropriately enough, the Betjeman Centre. Some old stations even offer accommodation, such as George Townsend Andrews' 1846 tongue-in-cheek pastiche of Vanbrughian Baroque at Castle Howard station in North Yorkshire, which now offers residential and self-catering holiday accommodation. The sturdy Italianate station at Alton in Staffordshire (1849) was closed in 1964 and reopened as prestigious and atmospheric holiday accommodation by the Landmark Trust in 1972.

More depressing were visits to sites where the line still operated but the stations themselves have been unnecessarily razed. The single-storey Tudor station at Henley-on-Thames was demolished as late as 1975, with a utilitarian substitute completed on roughly the same site only a decade later. The delightful gabled building at Dorking West, with its superb decorative bargeboards and fake timber framing, has been mindlessly destroyed.

Reassuringly, some of the stations closed in the 1950s and 60s have found a new lease of life in the hands of enthusiast-operated heritage railways. These provided perhaps the most cheering of all site visits. At Wansford in Cambridgeshire, John William Livock built a grandiose, stone-walled Jacobean pile in 1845 for a village of just 400 people. The station closed in 1957, and Livock's buildings were sold to a haulage company, yet the station is now the headquarters of the Nene Valley Railway. The handsome stone building at Midsomer Norton of 1874 - immortalised in Flanders and Swann's celebrated musical lamentation, 'The Slow Train', two years before it was closed in 1966 - today hosts the burgeoning Somerset and Dorset Railway Heritage Trust. Further north, G T Andrews' stations at Pickering and Grosmont of 1847 similarly prosper as the principal stations on the North York Moors Railway; there are several other examples.

Such inspiring stories as Wansford, Midsomer Norton and Pickering give the book its happy ending and served to renew faith in the future of the railways. Meanwhile, it is hoped this handsome volume will serve a fitting reminder of some of the greatest architectural achievements of the industrial era.

This page was first published on 31 March 2015

About the author


Dr Steven Parissien

Steven worked for The Georgian Group and English Heritage before joining Yale University's Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London, as Assistant Director, in 1995. In 2003 he became Professor of Architectural History and Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Plymouth, and in 2006 he joined The Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment as Director of Education. He is now Director at Compton Verney. Steven has written extensively on architectural and cultural history and has frequently appeared on national radio and television.

Further reading