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
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