Flight of the Concourse (Leeds station, West Yorkshire, UK)

So I have a bucket list. It’s all the bits of transport infrastructure and transport-related art I want to see in person. It’s not, I admit, most people’s idea of a bucket list. But hey, it’s mine, so I get to choose the contents.

Since writing about it last year, I’ve knocked off Eric Ravilious’s “Train Going Over a Bridge at Night” when I visited the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne (seeing it up close is much recommended, by the way). A few weeks ago I was briefly in York and I had the opportunity to tick another item off the list, so I grabbed it. I might have got soaked through doing it, but damn it all, incessant rain wasn’t going to stop me getting to Leeds station. I’d never been to Leeds before, and after many years going soft down south I sort of assumed that perhaps rainy was what Leeds was supposed to be like. So I hopped onto a TransPennine Express, astounded myself with the realisation that the York-Leeds railway still isn’t electrified yet (hello? What century is this? This should have been done years ago, before we forgot how to electrify stuff) and off I went.

Leeds station is like the best sort of package, one that might not be all that alluring at first glance, but conceals glistering trinkets within. The station has several entrances, and this is the one you see if you arrive by bus.

Leeds station, main entrance. Photo by R/DV/RS [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

Not particularly eye-catching, is it? But Leeds station has sort of accreted extra bits over umpteen rebuilds during its life, thus hiding its treasures. Walk in through the doors and carry straight on and you’re into an anonymous big-city station concourse, all information screens and fast food outlets around the sides. But you’ve missed Leeds station’s secret if that’s what you’ve done. You should have turned right, into one of the most fabulous station concourses anywhere in the country. Hidden at the heart of the station is an exquisite, and exquisitely restored, London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) Art Deco grand hall.

Leeds station, northern concourse. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

It is a jaw-dropping space, if you like that kind of thing (you’ll notice that the other people in the hall are cheerfully failing to notice the wondrous piece of transport architecture though which they’re passing), all the more so for its sheer incongruousness.

The concourse is seven bays long, divided by buttresses with a gentle curve in profile. It is lit by glass-block skylights in its coffered ceiling, and also by windows in the south-western wall. For night lighting (or rainy Friday afternoons) fabulous Art Deco bronze lamps hang from the ceiling. Along the walls, bronze panels which originally housed ticket counters form the windows for what are now retail units. At one end there is a very stylish clock, while at the other an archway flanked by fluted panels leads into a low arcade. That arcade links to an entrance off City Square, and just within that entrance is this utterly fabulous space:

Leeds station, lobby inside City Square entrance. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

You don’t see rotundas at stations very often, let alone ones as stylish as this.

The northern concourse was opened in 1931 after one of Leeds station’s periodic rebuilds, this time seeing the merger of the adjacent but previously separate Wellington Street and New stations. At least I think that’s what happened; I’ve never come across a station with such a baffling history of reconstructions. It was the work of architects William Curtis Green and W H Hamlyn. In its original guise it directly served the platforms of the ex-Wellington Street part of the station, and provided a connection to the ex-New station at one end.

It was much admired in its day, appearing as one of the illustrations in a series of British Railways carriage prints on the theme of railway architecture:

The 1930s rebuild of Leeds station saw not only saw the construction of the concourse but also a large new railway hotel, the Queens. It opened a few years later, in 1937, again the work of Green and Hamlyn. The LMS had all the best railway hotels, as the citizens of Morecambe already know. Back in Leeds, the Queens is all angular and pale with a look that’s a bit difficult to describe. There are elements of early Modern Movement/Modernist architecture (don’t ask me what the difference between the two is, I just can’t work it out) along the lines of something like 55 Broadway, an austere contrast with the streamline sinuosity of Morecambe’s Grand. But then there are odd features like miniature obelisks and temple fronts which hark back to pre-Modern architecture; Historic England describes the style as “stripped Classical”.

The Queens Hotel, Leeds. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

Finished in Portland stone, the hotel’s exterior includes several coats of arms, chiefly atop the columns supporting the coach porch, which illustrate the cities served by the LMS. They’re not nearly as interesting as the coats of arms carved on the front of the hotel, which are those of the LMS itself, a lovely reminder of the building’s builder.

LMS crest on the Queens Hotel, Leeds. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

The hotel is listed at Grade II, and retains many of its original decorative features. I would have popped in for a look, but by the time I’d stood across the road taking photos in the teeming rain, I’d ended up resembling something half-drowned, and seriously suspected I’d be thrown straight back out if I attempted to enter. Another time.

The northern concourse is also Grade II listed, along with the LMS’s office block above the rotunda entrance, which was built at the same time and looks like part of the hotel, but isn’t. Again, it was the work of Green and Hamlyn.

However, after a relatively short working life, for a while it all went pear-shaped for the northern concourse. In the 1960s, after the platforms serving it were closed (all the trains being diverted into roughly the area occupied by the present day track and platforms) it was neglected and a new southern concourse built. By the 1970s it was occupied partly by a later ticket hall, and the rest was apparently used as executive car parking. Everyone in their best Lady Bracknell voices now: “A…Car…Park!?”

On the plus side, its short working life as a station concourse meant that its original feature never suffered from gradual replacement. They were essentially abandoned. Shortly after the concourse was listed in 1996, saner heads in the railway industry prevailed and the northern concourse was comprehensively restored. The pendant lights were removed, stripped down, rebuilt to modern electrical safety standards, and re-hung. Overseen by careyjones architects, the northern entrance (the one with the rotunda) was reopened, and a new entrance was created leading out to the south-west side, where a passenger drop-off point was created on what had long-ago been platforms and tracks. Original suppliers were re-contracted to refurbish elements of the concourse they had originally built, so Luxcrete worked on the glass block skylights and Drawn Metal worked on the bronze casings and frames along the walls.

Ceiling of the northern concourse, Leeds station. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

The work was recognised by winning one of 1999’s National Railway Heritage Awards.

Leeds station being Leeds station, the knocking about and modification has continued since then. The “Leeds 1st” project of the early 2000s, of which the northern concourse refurbishment was an early stage, saw the main station’s roof replaced and additional platforms opened, to cope with increasing train services and passenger numbers. Just last year, a new southern entrance to the station was opened. An intriguing piece of architecture positioned on piers above the roaring River Aire, it provides a short-cut to an increasingly active area of Leeds on the south side of the railway tracks. Clad in metal panels, this two-storey helmet-shaped entrance hall has a full height glass wall at the front, and links to a footbridge built as part of the Leeds 1st package of works.

An entrance, with steps, leads directly into the side of the new southern entrance. If you use the step-free route though, it takes you in around the back of the southern entrance, through arches underneath the railway tracks above. For reasons unconnected with this blog, I have an interest in accessible transport issues, so I was very pleased to see that if you choose the step-free option, you get a visual treat that you miss completely if you use the step-entrance. The arches are lit by coloured lights to give a rainbow effect, with an end result every bit as dramatic as the northern concourse, though completely different in style.

Accessible route to Leeds station’s southern entrance. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

I had other plans for Leeds that day. I wanted to go and have a look at the new bus station which looks pretty ghastly from photos – can it be all that bad in real life? And there’s an abandoned 1950s (I think) bus station on Vicar Lane which looks splendid, and I wanted to see it before it’s demolished. Unfortunately, time and the weather were against me. I was cold, I was wet, and I just wanted to get back home. So they’re still on the bucket list, waiting to be ticked off another time.

How to find Leeds Station

Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

Bibliography and Further Reading

Historic England’s listing citation for the northern concourse, here

Historic England’s listing citation for the Queens Hotel, here

Historic England’s listing citation for the LMS offices alongside the Queens Hotel, here

Information about the refurbishment of the northern concourse by the architects, here

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