Scot­land’s best rail­way sta­tions

Rus­sell Lead­bet­ter talks to Si­mon Jenk­ins about his new book on the best train sta­tions in Bri­tain ... and why Waver­ley is one of the worst

Sunday Herald Life - - Contents - Si­mon Jenk­ins will be at the Mitchell Li­brary on March 23 as part of the Aye Write! fes­ti­val. Tick­ets from 0141 353 8000 or via Bri­tain’s 100 Best Rail­way Sta­tions is pub­lished by Pen­guin Viking at £25

SI­MON Jenk­ins’s lat­est book is en­ti­tled Bri­tain’s 100 Best Rail­way Sta­tions, and a splen­did book it is, too, with eye-catch­ing pho­tographs and a com­pre­hen­sive look at not sim­ply his cho­sen sta­tions but the de­vel­op­ment of rail in Bri­tain, too. He does not, how­ever, seem to have an ex­cess of af­fec­tion for Ed­in­burgh Waver­ley sta­tion, one of the hun­dred.

It is, he writes, a “ner­vous break­down” of a place. The cap­i­tal’s cit­i­zenry was ap­palled by the fact that its rail-line wiped out many pub­lic gar­dens be­tween the old city and New Town. One of Eu­rope’s finest an­cient cities was “di­vided by a pit of noise and smoke”. Its face to the city was al­ways hes­i­tant and apolo­getic, the book adds.

“Waver­ley is a mis­take,” Jenk­ins says now. It should never have been al­lowed to tear through the strik­ing park it oc­cu­pies. “It was al­ways … I don’t know what the right term for it is, but it was al­ways a b*****d sta­tion, which should never have had a chance to show its face.”

Does the sta­tion have any re­deem­ing fea­tures at all? “Well, it used to have a won­der­ful ticket of­fice, but they de­stroyed half of it. Yes, it has a cer­tain scruffy ro­mance to it, and there is a cer­tain ex­cite­ment see­ing it sneak­ing its way through the Cas­tle rock, but I’d say that the best thing about it is that it doesn’t im­pose it­self on the city that much. Hay­mar­ket is a much more hand­some sta­tion.”

That ticket of­fice is ev­i­dently a sore point. Jenk­ins writes that it was a free-stand­ing wooden struc­ture in Queen Anne style, with pi­lasters and a balustraded cor­nice. It had been de­signed by James Bell, the es­teemed chief en­gi­neer at the North British

Rail­way, but it was torn down dur­ing the la­mentable pe­riod — Jenk­ins refers to it as the “1970s Dev­as­ta­tion” — when much of Bri­tain’s rail­way her­itage was de­stroyed. Waver­ley’s fine old ticket of­fice was re­placed by, suc­ces­sively, a travel cen­tre, a shop­ping kiosk and a Costa Cof­fee stall. The space to­day is oc­cu­pied by metal seat af­ter metal seat.

Jenk­ins, of course, is, in ad­di­tion to be­ing a best­selling au­thor and a former edi­tor of both The Times and the Evening Stan­dard, a prom­i­nent fig­ure in British her­itage. He has served as chair­man of the Na­tional Trust and in 1984, while he was a non-ex­ec­u­tive board mem­ber of British Rail, he founded the Rail­way Her­itage Trust, hav­ing per­suaded British Rail’s then chair­man to fi­nance it at £1 mil­lion a year for five years. The trust is still go­ing strong, and does much valu­able work.

Jenk­ins is ven­tur­ing north later this month to dis­cuss his book at the Aye Write! fes­ti­val. And de­spite his tepid view of Waver­ley he is a gen­uine en­thu­si­ast when it comes to many other sta­tions in Scot­land. We­myss Bay, for one. It is so pic­turesque that it pro­vides the book with its strik­ing cover. It is also one of the few sta­tions, he be­lieves, that can be de­scribed as a co­her­ent work of art.

Built in 1903, it was de­signed by James Miller, a dom­i­nant per­son­al­ity in Scot­tish rail­way ar­chi­tec­ture, and planned by Don­ald Math­e­son, his old en­gi­neer col­league at the Caledonian Rail­way. Miller was also re­spon­si­ble for the re­built Stir­ling sta­tion (“lovely – a sort of dif­fer­ent ver­sion of We­myss Bay”, says the au­thor) and for the re­designed sta­tion at Gle­nea­gles. Both Stir­ling and We­myss Bay have “vir­tu­oso” roofs but it’s the lat­ter that is, in Jenk­ins’s mea­sured judge­ment, his mas­ter­piece.

When Miller died in 1947, in Stir­ling, his Glas­gow Her­ald obit­u­ary noted that his de­signs had con­trib­uted to the suc­cess of the 1901 Glas­gow In­ter­na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion at Kelv­in­grove. He had also been re­spon­si­ble, it went on, for the sub­way sta­tion at St Enoch Square, the Botanic Gar­dens sta­tion, and Glas­gow’s Kelv­in­bridge Man­sions, as well as sta­tions at Princes Pier and Gourock, the large ho­tel at Turn­berry, and sta­tions on the West High­land Rail­way. His build­ing com­mis­sions in­cluded many in Glas­gow, though there were oth­ers, in Belfast and Lon­don.

“I think We­myss Bay is beau­ti­ful, I re­ally do,” Jenk­ins ob­serves. “It ri­vals St Pan­cras, in Lon­don, it just knocked me out.

“Miller, was nor­mally as­so­ci­ated with the Queen Anne re­vival and with the baroque re­vival. He also had a fas­ci­na­tion with Swiss chalets in smaller branch-line sta­tions. At the time there was a cult of Scot­land be­ing the ‘new Alps’, with the tourist in­dus­try try­ing to at­tract peo­ple to the moun­tains.”

It’s notable that of the 10 Scot­tish rail sta­tions in the book, at least six – Aviemore, Gle­nea­gles, Glen­finnan, Perth, Pit­lochry and Ran­noch – lie north of the heav­ily pop­u­lated Cen­tral Belt. “The rea­son why the High­land sta­tions, and the sta­tions on the route north, tend to be more spec­tac­u­lar is that they were in­tended to be os­ten­ta­tious. They were part of the tourist in­dus­try – they weren’t just com­mer­cial en­ti­ties.”

In­deed. Aviemore is “hand­some” with a foot­bridge that “seems to float on air”. The 1901 sta­tion is in Miller’s “stan­dard chalet style, pe­cu­liarly hand­some with over­hang­ing eaves, bay win­dows and glazed wind screens.” Ran­noch sta­tion, too (glimpsed in the Trainspot­ting film of the mid-1990s) was the work of Miller. But Perth, Jenk­ins as­serts, is “a glo­ri­ous mess of a sta­tion,” one badly in need of restora­tion and re-use as Perth con­tin­ues to emerge as one of the liveli­est towns in Scot­land. Of the Scot­tish sta­tions not in the book, he has a soft spot for Aberdeen (“it has a cer­tain pres­ence to it”), In­ver­ness and Ed­in­burgh Hay­mar­ket. “I felt rather sorry to leave out Dun­robin Cas­tle, up in the Far North line, but it’s not re­ally open much of the time.”

One last, favourable men­tion of Math­e­son, as chief en­gi­neer, and Miller as ar­chi­tect comes in the con­text of Glas­gow’s Cen­tral Sta­tion. This re­mark­able duo was re­spon­si­ble for its bridge, plat­forms and con­course.

“That’s the great, big Scot­tish sta­tion. It’s as much an emo­tional sta­tion as it is an ar­chi­tec­tural sta­tion. It is just a very won­der­ful build­ing. It has the sense of pres­ence and des­ti­na­tion that you get in the big Lon­don ter­mini,” Jenk­ins says. “It has these cu­ri­ous fea­tures, too, like the Tor­pedo Build­ing, the orig­i­nal oval ticket-of­fice, which is part of its char­ac­ter. I think it speaks for it­self, re­ally, the sta­tion.”

And, of course, there’s the Hielan­man’s Um­brella. “The bridge,” writes Jenk­ins, who knows about such things, “is like a whale, beached across the street, ex­cept for Miller’s abil­ity to lighten a blank wall with stylish, clas­si­cally de­tailed and arched win­dows. They of­fer a glimpse of the in­te­rior roof and make the bridge seem al­most light­weight.”

The rea­son why the High­land sta­tions, and the sta­tions on the route north, tend to be more spec­tac­u­lar is that they were in­tended to be os­ten­ta­tious. They were part of the tourist in­dus­try – they weren’t just com­mer­cial en­ti­ties

Clock­wise from main, Gle­nea­gles Sta­tion, Glen­finnan and Pit­lochry, all of which fea­ture in Jenk­ins’ book

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