Long distance coach travel is the forgotten part of British public transport. In many mainland European countries regional coaches are an essential and integrated part of the public transport network. In Britain they are a low-cost alternative to train travel for those who don’t mind considerably slower journeys (that’ll be students and retired people, then), or the solution where a train service doesn’t exist. There are some exceptions which prove the rule (like London-Oxford coach services) but in general the state of British long distance coaches can be judged by the failure of First Group’s attempt to launch its Greyhound brand here. Not to mention that coach travel has a profile in the popular media which is even worse than train travel, which is saying something.
As a result, there isn’t a lot of good coach-related design around in Britain, and what there is tends to date from the early part of the twentieth century, when coach travel was a bit more mainstream than it seems to be now.
Foremost amongst coach-related transport design is London’s Victoria Coach Station. To be strictly accurate, we’re talking about the departures building of Victoria Coach Station here, which is where all the waiting rooms, little shops, and information systems are gathered. There’s a completely separate and essentially nondescript arrivals building on the other side of Elizabeth Street which need not detain us here.
On the corner of Buckingham Palace Road and Elizabeth Street, Victoria Coach station is a six-storey Streamline Moderne slice of public transport style.
The main entrance (which is at 45° to the roads on which the coach station stands) is at the foot of a stepped central tower, set slightly further back. Three vertical recesses centrally on the tower contain metal-framed windows and detailing. Two wings, running parallel to Buckingham Palace Road and Elizabeth Street flank the tower. The building is finished in white, with the window frames in contrasting black. Although at first glance symmetrical, there are detail differences between the two wings, in particular a concrete canopy on the southern wing, which projects over a secondary entrance/exit.
Up close, the detailing is wonderful. A four-square pattern breaks up the horizontals on the wings, while the metal windows at ground level feature chevron patterning at their sides.
Then there’s the way that the curved inner ends of the wings tuck into the central tower, itself constructed of elements which step both backwards and inwards, with corner windows emphasising the shape.
Opened in 1932, the coach station was designed by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners. The same company was responsible for a series of extraordinary Art Deco factory buildings in West London, most of them on the A4 Great West Road. The Hoover Factory (on the A40 Western Avenue) is perhaps the most famous today, but the Great West Road’s collection of Wallis, Gilbert buildings including the Firestone Tyre Factory, the Pyrene Building, the Coty Cosmetics Factory, and Simmonds Aerocessories, is perhaps one of the most significant examples of the fact that functional buildings can and should look beautiful too. Most of the buildings just mentioned survive to this day. Take a trip on the Great West Road’s so-called “Golden Mile”, and amidst the dirt and noise and soulless later buildings, I promise you’ll fall in love with Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ work as well as that of other architects who added to the industrial Art Deco extravaganza along the road. The exception is the Firestone Tyre Factory. It was scandalously demolished in 1980, over a bank holiday weekend, on the eve of being placed on the National Heritage List for England (in a move many commentators believed was not a coincidence (as here)). Its disgraceful replacement stands behind the original Firestone Tyre Factory gates and piers, the only part of the building to survive (these were listed in 2001).
Wallis, Gilbert and Partners also designed smaller but still wonderful Art Deco coach/bus stations in locations including Hemel Hempstead (now demolished), Peckham (now demolished), Amersham (now demolished), St Albans (now demolished), and Windsor (erm, now demolished; there’s a pattern here, I think). But Victoria Coach Station, with its much grander scale, is the company’s transport masterpiece, not to mention one of its few survivors in this field.
Initially operated by a consortium of coach operators serving London, by 1968 Victoria Coach Station passed into the hands of the new National Bus Company, before eventually finding its way into the ownership of London Transport in 1988. London Transport’s successor, Transport for London (TfL), still retains responsibility for it, and the coach station has its own orange version of the TfL roundel. The orange roundel can also be seen on other roadside coach stops near the coach station and in scattered locations around the rest of London.
I’d like to say that Victoria Coach Station makes a landmark gateway for travellers coming to London by coach, but of course they arrive at the other bit of the coach station across the road. For those leaving London, after admiring the outside they would then unfortunately have been subject to its interior; and the inside is a complete let-down, in stark contrast to the delectable outside. Instead of having a glorious Art Deco experience as their final memory of London, they instead have to suffer the coach station’s plastic-y, soulless waiting areas and decor. Whatever Art Deco styling might once have graced the waiting areas has long since vanished, replaced by something which currently has an early 1990s feel about it. You could be in any modern coach station which has undergone an entirely indifferent refurbishment within the last 15-20 years.
It’s like tearing into a beautifully wrapped birthday present and discovering that there’s only a bag of your least favourite vegetables inside. Turnips, in my case.
There’s a general assumption that the coach station is listed by statutory heritage body English Heritage, affording its protection into the future. However, this is a misconception. Despite even knowledgeable bodies like the Transport Trust (a charity promoting the greater public recognition of transport history in the UK) suggesting that it is Grade II listed, a quick check of the official National Heritage List for England proves that it is not [but see “Postscript” at the end of the entry]. Indeed, the landowner of the plot on which the coach station is built has indicated that it wants to redevelop the land on which the coach station stands, relocating it somewhere else. Whether that means the existing building would be demolished or converted is anyone’s guess at the moment. But given that the coach station is not listed, another Firestone Factory situation remains a risk. Given that most of Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ transport output has already been demolished, that would be scandalous.
I said last week that this time I would look at two public transport buildings, but I see that I’ve already used up most of this week’s word count on Victoria Coach Station alone. So I’ll put off building number two until next week (tune in again then if you’re a Streamline Moderne fan) and leave you with this thought.
The extraordinary thing (as far as this blog is concerned, anyway) about Buckingham Palace Road is that opposite Victoria Coach Station is a second Streamline Moderne transport building. This one, however, has a transport history of which most people who pass its doors are completely unaware…
postscript, 5th September 2014
Well, it was a misconception that Victoria Coach Station was listed when I wrote this entry. On 1st September 2014, it was finally listed at Grade II status (see the citation here, which agrees with my analysis of the quality of the waiting areas, but does so in proper civil service-ese). That should make it much harder to demolish as part of any redevelopment of the land on which it stands.
how to find Victoria Coach Station
The green arrow marks the location
Transport for London’s Victoria Coach Station 80th birthday page, here
More on Wallis, Gilbert and Partners (and discussion of whether there ever was a Gilbert at all), here