Baby Brutalism (Concrete bus shelters, Lewis, UK)

Well, so help me, I’ve stumbled across a piece of transport Brutalism which is appealing and even, dare I suggest it, rather cute. Longstanding readers will know that I have my issues with Brutalism. Some pieces of Brutalism I admire without quite truly loving (Preston Bus Station, Forton Services) and others I really don’t like at all (Greyfriars Bus Station). I’m quite content that others really do love these buildings passionately (or mourn their passing, in the latter case), but they generally leave me a bit unmoved.

Until now.

Quite by accident, I discovered this dinky bit of Brutalist transport architecture…

Bus shelter on Lewis. Photo by Tom Richardson [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Bus shelter on Lewis. Photo by Tom Richardson [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a bus shelter on Lewis, in the Western Isles, off the Atlantic coast of mainland Scotland. It’s one of a series on the island that comprises Lewis and Harris, though as far as I can tell these shelters are found only in Lewis.

The cruciform shelters are solid and heavy bits of concrete architecture, but are only about seven-foot (a little over 2m) tall. On top they have a square roof with rounded-off corners, just far enough off the ground for a passenger to stand up in. They’re Brutal, but on a charmingly human scale.

While I would be utterly horrified if one of them turned up at a leafy Home Counties bus stop, they are almost perfect for bus stops in Lewis.

For a start, they manifest the rugged physicality of the Western Isles, their rough concrete finish mirroring the bare rock outcrops that occur locally. Most of all, they are tough enough to withstand the local climate. They might not be ethereally attractive, but any bus shelter which was would probably have been blown away long ago if installed on Lewis.

The Western Isles are exposed. Really exposed. Battered by gales, you’ll often hear tales of the horizontal rain which doesn’t so much fall on the islands so much as blast straight across them at fearsome speed. It’s like some kind of freezing miles-wide water cannon, soaking everything in its path except the ground, which remains dry because the rain never gets a chance to fall that far. I’ve been in one such rainstorm on Iona. It’s not an experience an English person forgets quickly, and we like to think we know everything there is to know about rain. Although a lot of this fearsome weather comes off the Atlantic, the winds on the islands of Scotland can come from pretty well any direction. The Lewis bus shelters are the perfect response. Quartered into four sections, there will always be one part which is in the lee of the wind and hopefully remains fairly dry even in the rain. The low roof prevents any more rain blowing in over the heads of passengers than is possible to exclude. The massive walls splay outwards. These shelters are hugely bottom heavy and aren’t going anywhere even in the most terrible gale.

Bus shelter on the A857 road at Nis, Lewis. © Copyright M J Richardson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Bus shelter on the A857 road at Nis, Lewis. © Copyright M J Richardson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via this page at geograph.org.uk

I can’t find out for definite when these shelters were constructed. This flickr user reckons they date from the 1970s, which seems about right based on their design. Nor can I find out the exact reason that so many of these identical shelters should have appeared, apart from the practical fact that the same mould could be used over and over again for pouring the concrete to make the components. One flickr user reckons the shelters were constructed as part of a job creation scheme, which does sound quite convincing, though again I can’t absolutely confirm it.

What you’ll also notice are missing from these bus stops are any kinds of bus stop poles, flags or timetables. This isn’t even unique to the rural bus shelters on Lewis. In Stornoway, you can find bus stops where the ‘cages’ are marked with yellow lines and lettering on the road surface, but no associated bus stop poles or timetable cases seem to be in evidence. It raises the question of how infrequent users or visitors to Lewis are supposed to know when buses depart or where they go, or where on the roads buses stop to pick up or drop off. I’ve checked the timetables online and there’s no mention that the bus routes operate on a hail and ride basis, which would otherwise explain the lack of stop-specific infrastructure.

Lewis’s Brutalist bus shelters are also missing any seats. Even a concrete bench would do, and it’s a pity these weren’t included as part of the kit of parts. I suspect cost avoidance was the issue here; and some very hardy bus users.

Bus shelter at Kirivick, Lewis. © Copyright Chris Downer and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via this page at geograph.org.uk
Bus shelter at Kirivick, Lewis. © Copyright Chris Downer and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via this page at geograph.org.uk

More recent metal bus shelters can be found at bus stops in the relatively more sheltered environs of Stornoway (where Google Street View suggests the weather is already wearing them considerably) and also in the countryside of Lewis (see here to see some sheep having a lie-down in one such) and Harris (see here). I’m not sure I’d like to be in such a shelter during one of Lewis and Harris’s screaming storms. I’d be worried the glass/polycarbonate might pop out of the frame, and these metal shelters replicate a common deficiency of most modern bus shelters, which is that they have a gap of several inches at the bottom of their walls. This is supposed to allow debris and rain to blow out of the shelter rather than collecting in it, but in practice it means that ferocious drafts circulate round inside. In a Lewis and Harris gale, that would mean wet feet too. Those sheep might be alright on the ground, but human bus passengers would have to sit with their feet drawn up.

Give me one of Lewis’s baby Brutalist bus shelters any time. They’re the perfect response to the challenges of their environment.

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