Even if you know nothing at all about transport, and you might be surprised to learn that this includes the majority of the population, you would realise on arrival at Tynemouth that the station isn’t quite what you might expect of a metro.
It’s a gorgeous piece of Victorian melodrama, all pointy windows, red brickwork with contrasting pale stone dressings, cast iron curves and acres of glass. It’s the St Pancras of the Tyne & Wear Metro. Interestingly, it owes its astounding appearance to the foundations of the long battle to attain better holiday rights for factory workers.
Very cleverly, Tynemouth station was built in 1882, nearly 100 years before Metro trains started running there. Out on the coast north of the Tyne, the Metro has a complicated history. Two main line railways came to Tynemouth, the North Eastern Railway in 1847 and the Blyth & Tyne in 1860 (it was later absorbed by the North Eastern). After various realignments the railway through Tynemouth was electrified by the North Eastern Railway in 1904, de-electrified by British Rail in the 1967 (d’oh!), run-down and neglected, handed over to Tyne & Wear Passenger Transport Executive in the 1970s, re-electrified and reopened as part of the Metro in 1980.
To the design of its architect William Bell, the North Eastern Railway built the station (the fourth Tynemouth station, following all those realignments; I told you the railway’s history was complicated) to capitalise on the popularity of train trips to the seaside, and it remains one of the best preserved examples of a seaside railway station in Britain. Historic England calls it “particularly fine”. Such stations were built to a vast scale, often quite out of proportion to the size of surrounding town itself, to cope with the crowds of holidaymakers who flocked to resorts like Tynemouth in the later 19th and early 20th Centuries. The tradition of Wakes Week holidays (associated most strongly with the Lancashire textile mills, but not exclusively so) saw mill workers head for the seaside in their thousands during a week’s (unpaid) leave, to benefit from the health-giving qualities of the sea and sea air. These enforced and unpaid holidays eventually became a widespread practice across the rest of the country, and Tynemouth catered especially for holidaymakers from Glasgow. It was on the foundations of these factory-enforced unpaid holiday weeks that trades unions agitated for paid leave for workers, though it took until the Holidays with Pay Act (1938) before the first British workers became legally entitled to a week’s holiday (see here for more). And that’s why, as I keep explaining to people, the history of transport is the history of the modern world, and there should never be any reason for a transport museum to be boring…
Tynemouth’s platforms were extremely long, well over 200m, to handle the number of carriages on excursion trains. Imagine it used not by commuters to Newcastle city centre as it is today, but in the height of summer one day in the late 19th Century, crammed to bursting factory workers from Glasgow and other towns across the north, arriving at the seaside, smelling sea air and hearing the cries of the gulls. Tynemouth was at the cutting edge of a social revolution which was being facilitated by the railways, the idea of travelling to somewhere distant for a holiday, and this is the reason the station is such an important survivor.
Like most such stations, Tynemouth didn’t just have “through” platforms to serve regular train services along the coast, but “bay” platforms, essentially parking spaces for trains terminating at Tynemouth. It originally had bays on both side of the main tracks, and on each side there were bays facing north and bays facing south.
What it also had, and what is still has (by the skin of its teeth) is the most amazing set of glass canopies, covering practically the whole length of its platforms. Even today, when we’re all used to seeing expanses of glass in modern architecture, the canopies of Tynemouth station remain extremely impressive. On a sunny day, they catch the light beautifully, and because of the metalwork supporting them, cast complicated shadows on the platforms below. Not that it was sunny when I took my camera there a few weeks ago. Oh no. It was late spring, so it was about 4°C and raining on and off. I’ve been visiting my sister and her family in Newcastle and latterly Tynemouth for about 20 years, and I have the worst luck with the weather. Only once has it been warm enough to dispense with my coat (to the amusement of the hardier locals, I suspect).
The huge canopies originally protected the bay platforms, and if you look carefully at the photo above you can see where the bays have been filled in, leaving today’s massive platforms and colossal glass roofs. The platform also retains its impressive tiled map of the North Eastern Railway network, the subject of an earlier article.
The main buildings on the east side of the station aren’t overly imposing, but are full of lovely Victorian neo-gothic railway station details, including iron cresting along the top of the slate roofs, stone finials and some rather super chimneys.
The windows are also particularly brilliant, with real attention to detail in the foliated caps on the central mullions and the terminals at the end of the drip moulds over the windows:
The buildings on the west side of the station are smaller and less ornate, but no less interesting. The tower (see – it really is a St Pancras for the Tyne & Wear Metro) was originally designed to house an ‘accumulator’; a pressurised water tank which operated goods lifts at the stations by hydraulic power.
Those lifts served the bridge over the ‘through’ railway tracks. It’s one of the highlights of Tynemouth station, and an extremely unusual design. Twin footbridges flank a goods-only route, making it a triple section bridge. The central goods section of the bridge, now redundant, today houses art exhibitions which you can view from the footbridges on either side.
The cast ironwork is the principal feature justifying Tynemouth Station’s Grade II* listing. Historic England describes it as being in an “exuberant style appropriate to a seaside resort”, noting the ornamental spandrels in the roof and the foliated tops to the non-classical columns.
Tynemouth station’s survival was a close-run thing. It was already crumbling under British Rail’s ‘care’ when it was transferred to Tyne & Wear PTE. Most Metro stations are fairly simple structures, and there was no transport need for the station to be retained rather than demolished and replaced by a typical light rail platform, which was the original plan. Thankfully, the Friends of Tynemouth Station was formed to fight for the survival of the station (see a news story about it here), and the station was granted Grade II listed status in 1978. That saw off the threat of imminent demolition (and arguably set the precedent that saw several other North Eastern Railway stations retained on the Metro rather than demolished). However, the fabric of the building was in a terrible state, with the cast iron roof supports particularly bad. The station was on Historic England’s buildings at risk register for many years. Making a convincing case for an expensive restoration job required more than just saying it was something that ought to be done. The station needed to prove its worth, so the Friends of Tynemouth Station continued to raise awareness of the station, but most significantly started up an antique and collector’s market held on the platforms every Saturday. It’s turned the station into a proper part of its local community, and on Saturdays the market is absolutely heaving. There’s a posh restaurant in the east-side station buildings now too, rather than the empty buildings you see at so many other Victorian buildings.
A restoration programme was eventually undertaken. but it took until 2012 for restoration of Tynemouth station to be fully completed. A yearlong, £3.68m restoration, saw the outer ends of the canopies restored; the buildings, footbridge and middle sections of the canopies had been restored in earlier phases. At last, Tynemouth station had been restored to its Victorian splendour. It’s a fine station for Tynemouth, and a great survivor of an important part of transport history.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Historic England’s listing citation for Tynemouth Station, here
Some examples of the role of heritage railway architecture in local economic growth, here
Tynemouth station market webpage, here
…and anything else linked to in the text above