Steamer Trading (Wemyss Bay station, Scotland)

The fine Edwardian station at Wemyss Bay has long been ahead of its time. Let me explain.

Wemyss Bay station. Photo by Matt Davis [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

Back in the early 2000s, when I was working for a county council’s public transport department, we used to worry a lot about multi-modal transport. Those were the heady days of transport secretary/deputy prime minister John Prescott, the 10-year Transport Plan, and modal shift targets (can you believe?) for transferring travellers from cars to public transport. The idea behind multi-modal transport and multi-modal interchange improvements was to try to ensure public transport could offer something approaching the door-to-door convenience of car travel. Admittedly, a bus-train-bus journey wasn’t going to be quite as convenient as a car journey, but it was certainly better than telling people to let the train take the strain, and giving them no clue as to how they might get to the railway station without driving there.

We spent many hours scratching our heads over what to do in large towns with a conveniently central bus station, and an inconveniently un-central railway station some distance from the town centre. Should the bus station be moved to the railway station? That would inconvenience the majority of bus passengers, who were using the bus to get into town. And how could we make bus and train timetables dovetail effectively? We never did square those circles, and anyway it didn’t really matter in the end because the 10-year Transport Plan imploded, then the money started to run out, the recession hit, and then it was all about transport for economic growth with a bit of carbon reduction thrown in as a sop to environmental interests. If you could do the latter by making traffic move more quickly through town then you didn’t even really need public transport at all and you could spend an increased share of a declining transport budget on road improvements. Which was music to the ears of many councillors, who just wanted their potholes filled and didn’t understand the point of public transport, except perhaps for train travel to London’s Square Mile.

The integrated multi-modal public transport offer vanished in a puff of car exhaust. But Wemyss Bay station has been providing seamless multi-modal interchange between train and ferry since 1903 in its current form, and since 1865 in an earlier one. And that’s not the only way the station has proved to be wise beyond its years.

Designed by architect James Miller and engineer Donald Matheson, the station was rebuilt because of a need to provide additional platforms and improved ferry facilities. The first station was built by the Greenock to Wemyss Bay Railway to open up access to the island of Bute on the other side of the Clyde via paddle steamer connections. The venture was a great success, prompting the Caledonian Railway, which had absorbed the Greenock to Wemyss Bay Railway and the paddle steamer operation (see here and here) to undertake the 1903 rebuild.

The curved platforms at Wemyss Bay station, restored to their original Caledonian Railways colour scheme last year. Photo by Rosser1954 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Matheson had recently returned from the United States, where he had witnessed the latest thinking in crowd-handling. Curved plans seemed to assist passenger movement, so Wemyss Bay has curved platforms which lead into a concourse area before passengers are swept along a curved covered walkway stretching down the ferry pier. It was an idea ahead of its time, as the Friends of Wemyss Bay station explain in this news story.

The covered ramp leading from the station down to the pier and ferry terminal office.
© Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via this geograph page

It’s a beautiful station that has survived essentially intact and unaltered from 1903. The glazed canopies over the platforms, concourse and walkway to the ferry are supported on fabulous metalwork, as you’d expect from a station of that era. The curved planform of the station resulted in an unusual semi-circular ticket office being installed, and the roof follows a 180-degree curve around it. It’s one of the most spectacular sights at any of the smaller stations on Britain’s rail network, and better than anything at quite a few of the larger ones. Here it is:

Wemyss Bay ticket office. Photo by dun_deagh [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

If you think it looks vaguely familiar, it’s probably because it prefigures Foster+Partners’ Great Court remodelling at London’s British Museum:

The Great Court at the British Museum, London. Photo by M.chohan [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Admittedly the Great Court has a 360-degree roof, but the concept is identical. I told you Wemyss Bay was ahead of its time.

Outside, the station is finished in mock half-timbering and harling, and has an impressive Italianate clock tower. It’s complemented by a station house and some railway cottages in the same style, also assumed to be by Miller.

Station house and railway cottages, Wemyss Bay. © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via this geograph page

The line to the station was electrified in the late 1960s, Wemyss Bay once again proving to be in the vanguard of the modern. In contrast, rumours now swirl in the rail industry that the government is about to give up on plans to electrify the London-Sheffield Midland Main Line (yes, readers from abroad, we’re seriously considering the continuation of a diesel-operated inter-city main line well into the 21st Century).

Wemyss Bay station suffered from a degree of neglect during the second half of the 20th Century, but luckily has its own Friends group, as mentioned earlier, who have done a stirling job keeping an eye on it. The Friends have converted the old First Class waiting rooms into a second-hand bookshop, reintroduced the floral displays for which the station used to be famous, and created a garden on a disused siding.

The concourse at Wemyss Bay station, following restoration in 2016. The broken pediment over the exit is particularly impressive. © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence via this geograph page

Fortunately for lovers of railway architecture (and if you’re not, what are you doing here?) Wemyss Bay station was the subject of a multi-million pound restoration scheme which was completed last year. The pier has had £6m spent on it, and the station another £4m, as befits a Category A listed building; the station house and railway cottages are C-listed. This has fully restored the glazed roof, seen the structure of the station fully repaired, and also included a repaint in the brown and orange colours the Caledonian Railway used for its stations. The National Railway Museum in York donated an original Caledonian Railway bench for the concourse area.

Caledonian MacBrayne ferry at Wemyss Bay pier, with Wemyss Bay station on the right. Photo by dave souza (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Today, it is Caledonian MacBrayne which operates the ferry service from Wemyss Bay station to Rothesay on Bute, rather than the railway company. But the timetables still dovetail with the intention that you can travel from Glasgow to Rothesay (or the other way round) as an integrated, multi-modal public transport journey. There are even two bus stops just outside the station, just for good measure in integrated transport terms.

And as final proof that no matter its age, Wemyss Bay station still has one eye on the future, it’s just received some electric vehicle charging points in a project undertaken by local train operator ScotRail.

How to find Wemyss Bay station

Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

Bibliography and Further Reading

Historic Environment Scotland’s listing citation for Wemyss Bay Station (here), the station house (here) and the railway cottages (here).

The Friends of Wemyss Bay Station’s website, here, which I shamelessly plundered for many of the details in the article above. They’re doing a grand job. Buy something from their shop when you visit.

…and anything linked to in the text above

4 thoughts on “Steamer Trading (Wemyss Bay station, Scotland)

  1. Excellent piece and a lovely station I haven’t been to for years. I know we’re in Scotland, but how does “stirling work” differ from good practice away from that fine town?

    1. For no reason I’m completely sure of, but I suspect was to do with long ago ownership of ferries by railway companies, rail/ferry integration seems to be generally good at many locations. Nearer to me, there’s a nice covered route between train and ferry at Portsmouth Harbour, and a matching covered interchange at Ryde Pier on the other side of the Solent. But rarely are such facilities as stylish as at Wemyss Bay, which is both useful and very beautiful, and I think that’s the reason Wemyss Bay deserves special commendation!

  2. Thank you for this piece. Wemyss Bay does look fantastic, and I’d not thought of the comparison with the Great Court. It should be said that the Dunoon ferry terminal appears to be from the same railway/ferry architect, albeit the quayside ensemble is not quite as good as Wemyss Bay, although a photo from Dunoon Castle through the pine trees across the Firth with Dunoon ferry terminal in the foreground makes it almost alpine.

    The bit you’ve not covered is the other part of integrated public transport – integrated ticketing. A £9.60 day return sold by Scotrail from Central to Dunoon via Gourock which includes both rail and CalMac ferry is both excellent integration as well as an outstanding bargain. A trip down the Clyde by train and across the Firth by ferry (whether to Dunoon or Rothesay) is well worth the half-day of anyone’s time when they’re in Glasgow.

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