Simon Jenkins, Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations. Viking, 2017.
If you really want to get a feel for England, you must see it by train.
Travelling by car you are sealed off. One county looks much like any other behind the scrub embankment of a motorway. The voices we while away the hours to no longer cut out over the horizon now that radio is digital. The white goods abandoned in the lay-by and the fast food wrappers speared by the bare branches of the verge are all the same wherever you go.
It is by train that you get your bearings. The landscape tells you something about the people you will meet at the other end. There is a rugged, tough frankness to the land in Yorkshire that you expect and then find imprinted on the people. Newcastle, an island in an ocean of wind-harried pastureland, has the independence of outlook appropriate to isolation. The scenery in Lancashire is soft, yielding and indulgent. Approach London from the South on any line and you will find Victoriana and ramshackle contemporary grot with weird Arab-esque glass towers announcing themselves in the distance like boils on the face of an old friend. It’s all there: the rise, decline and fall, and you can see it from your seat.
Sometimes it is the passengers themselves who convey this sense of change. When I think of my daily commute it is always the small things which tell you most about the world outside your home: Urdu jabbered urgently into mobile phones while the remainder of the carriage sways mutely in the morning light; or the young man whose skull is half devoured by headphones choosing not to see the elderly lady who needed a seat, unwilling as he was to fold up his laptop and lose for a moment the company of his football manager simulation.
The quality of the interruptions improves outside London. ‘Eh, you know that phone what we nicked at the festival? There’s some girl says she wants it back, like.’ That was Runcorn and the girl had abnormally large eyebrows drawn in felt tip.
Sometimes it is the trains themselves which guide you, like the London Bridge service on my line which reliably appears every Friday morning with wet seats and a potent aroma of Dettol and stomach acid.
But the stations always tell you the most. They tell you something of the time they were built, but a lot too about the way we are now. The first time I passed through York station I saw the name board hanging lopsided over a pile of rubble. It seemed as if it would be an eccentric place, and so it proved. It is one thing to inherit a station of the awesome grandeur of Newcastle’s, quite another to hold your nerve through all the revolutions in planning and national transport policy and leave it intact. It takes a sense of civic pride, missing elsewhere, to do that. And how can even the hardest heart stand for a while on the concourse of Paddington without feeling again the romance and possibility of London, however jaded one’s dealings with her have left you?
All of which brings us to Simon Jenkins’s new book, Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations. It is in the tradition of his previous books on churches and country houses: an essay on the genre followed by sharp pen portraits and lavish photography. It is a book which Jenkins is well placed to write as the founder of the Railway Heritage Trust and a successful campaigner for the preservation of our railway stations since the early 1980s.
Some reviewers have called this a coffee-table book, and by that I believe they mean to compliment the camera-work, which is consistently superb. The writing is perfectly suited to the theme. Jenkins does not waste words. The architecture is given centre stage, and he has the courage to write technically without seeking to jam superlatives into every sentence to guide the reader.
When he does editorialise, he gets it right. There is ‘magic in the air at Paddington’, Newcastle is ‘the grandest of provincial stations, if not the most lovable’. He has a brilliant eye for the small detail, the locked door behind the arch at Malvern which conceals what was a tunnel connecting the station and the former Imperial Hotel for first-class passengers.
Most of all, the quality the author evinces is judiciousness. This is as important in what he excludes as much as in what makes the cut. Both Oxford and Manchester Piccadilly miss out, as does Stafford which must be the ugliest station I have seen, a brutalist masterpiece, if that is not a contradiction in terms.
The result is that you trust what is in. The book leaves you with a deep and abiding sadness at the destructiveness of the Beeching reforms which have scarred the inherited beauty of our built environment with bad-tempered and spiteful traffic. It also leaves you with a yearning to travel and see more of Britain. Wemyss Bay, Ribblehead, Grange-over-Sands, even Huddersfield. Now I would like to see them all.
One image abides with me from the last year of rail travel. The train had arrived late into King’s Cross on an autumn afternoon. Most of the passengers had left, but as I walked down the carriage I came to one table at which a little girl had been sat by her father, a man in an adjacent seat staring at a mobile phone and perhaps unaware that we had arrived. She had clearly spent the entire journey ripping up some brown paper seemingly brought especially for this purpose and throwing it on the floor. It was a loutish, inconsiderate, negligent piece of parenting, and it was a mess. It was a vision of London, but of the future too. If you really want to get a feel for England, then you must see it by train.