Vernacular Spectacular: Bus Shelters Which Break the Mould

Quite apart from the many failings of a great many bus shelters (too dark / draughty / let the rain in / rubbish or leaves blown into corners / no glass / glass isn’t glass but scratched polycarbonate / structure is going rotten (wood) / structure is going rusty (metal) / no seats / no sides / has sides but no front / has sides but the side facing oncoming traffic is an advertising poster frame so you can’t see buses coming, etc) there is another to add to the list. That is that so many of them are so utterly disrespectful of their local environment. Wooden ones (and I’m talking good quality ones in good nick, not semi-derelict shed-like things) work well in rural areas, but can seem incongruous when placed in towns. Metal ones in the countryside are an ugly invasion of an entirely unsuitable aesthetic.

Even in towns, the design of most contemporary metal shelters is so poor that they don’t even blend in there either. Unless, of course, the town in which you live comprises flimsy-looking metal-framed buildings with large polycarbonate windows, and air gaps on the ground floor, in which case I strongly suggest it’s time to relocate to a real place. In towns with historic streetscapes, the contrast is especially brutal.

A modern bus shelter fails to blend in sympathetically with a historic streetscape in Windsor. Photo by Basher Eyre [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I understand that the way bus shelters look isn’t the most pressing problem in transport or urban planning. I also understand that the reason that many modern bus shelters look so mundane and incongruous in their surroundings is that they are built down to a price to match the financial imperatives of the parish/borough/county councils which are the largest buyers of bus shelters. But many bus shelters are such depressing sights on the streets that they must be helping to undermine the wider public’s perception of bus travel, as well as annoying the town planners who the public transport industry should instead be courting to ensure that public transport is properly integrated into urban planning.

And there are, if you go looking, a few bus shelters which show that you can adapt some or all of the local vernacular to provide a waiting place which harmonises with the local environment, rather than just sticking two fingers up at it.

[Move the Street View around if the bus shelter isn’t on screen.] Built in 1925, this bus shelter in Broadclyst (or Broad Clyst; there seems to be some disagreement), Devon, has achieved such fame as an exemplar of respecting the local design aesthetic that it’s been listed by Historic England at Grade II. Designed by Randall Wells, its walls are made of the red sandstone which underlies much of the south-west of England, and which is the typical building material for many buildings in the area. Like many of the other buildings around the shelter, it is topped off with a thatched roof.

In fact there are quite a few thatched bus shelters around the country, though not all of them match the local architecture quite so well as the one at Broadclyst. The shelter at Hurstbourne Priors in Hampshire (see it here) is located close to several thatched buildings, but the walls of the shelter are wooden, rather than the render or flint to be seen on other local buildings. Similarly, the shelter at Dunchurch (see it here) has a thatched roof matching that of buildings nearby, including replicating the ridge pattern, but its walls are again wooden.

Meanwhile, in Surrey…

Thatched bus shelter and dovecote at Westcott, Surrey. © Copyright Stefan Czapski and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence via this Geograph page

The shelter above is incredibly charming, and locally (well, locally to me) famous. In the heart of the Surrey Hills, the bus shelter in Westcott is the only one I know of which has an associated dovecote. Both are thatched, and the walls of the bus shelter are timber-framed with brick infill. While it’s very picturesque, it actually bears little relationship to the local vernacular architecture. Thatched roofs are rare in Surrey; terracotta tiles are more usual for both roofing and hanging on walls. But when I am ever going to get round to featuring this bus shelter otherwise? It’s a memorial to a soldier who fell in the First World War (so the symbolism of the dovecote is entirely appropriate), which seems to be a recurring theme amongst ornate bus shelters. The one at Dunchurch acts in a similar manner for the Second World War.

You won’t find many thatched roofs in the Yorkshire Dales either. They’d blow off. Instead, slate roofs are the order of the day, sufficiently watertight that shallow pitches can be employed without fear of water ingress (I’ve been reading up). The local building materials are either gritstone or limestone, both brown-greyish and tough-looking. Looking up the remarkably preserved main street in the village of East Witton in North Yorkshire gives a good idea of the effect.

East Witton, North Yorkshire. © Copyright Chris Heaton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via this Geograph page

Happily, the village bus shelter doesn’t ruin the effect by being made of something completely different, but instead is a miniature replication of this building style. Here it is:

Bus shelter in East Witton, North Yorkshire. You will note that the broken guttering will cause rain to pour directly across the entrance. Oh well. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

Even when more modern buildings have ignored the vernacular, bus stops can still be made to blend in rather than stick out, when planned as part of the overall construction. Here, the bus shelter outside the remarkable De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, East Sussex, is of a piece with the rendered Modernist architecture of the pavilion itself.

Bus shelter outside the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, East Sussex. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page. So, everyone is taking photos of the Pavilion and there’s just me, trying to get a photo of the bus shelter instead…

I suppose the question is whether today’s landmark buildings include the provision of bus stops as part of the architecture of the whole building, whether no-one thinks about it at all, or whether planning conditions requiring the construction of bus shelters are fulfilled by the procurement of an off-the-shelf design with no relationship to the buildings they stand outside.

I’m not a great fan of the Selfridges building in Birmingham. It’s too blobbily alien for my tastes, though it’s an undeniably striking landmark for Birmingham, and I know lots of people think it’s brilliant. Imagine though, what it would be like for the profile of local public transport if the bus shelter outside took some design cues from the Selfridges building itself, and was all curvy and dotty, instead of being just another run-of-the-mill big city bus shelter [move the Street View around if the bus shelter isn’t on screen]:

I can’t claim encyclopædic knowledge of the situation outside Britain, but I do know of one place where there are some perfect examples of bus shelters emulating vernacular architecture. Indeed, it’s the place that prompted me to write this article, and it’s the island of Tenerife. Dotted around the island you can find several examples of bus shelters which encapsulate the traditional local building style.

[Move the Street View around if the bus shelter isn’t on screen.] The roofs of these shelters are made of clay tiles which have an arched form; they might actually be called Spanish tiles, but I got confused when researching roof tile types. The roofs overhang all the way round, which I assume is to cast shade when the sun is high up in the sky. Just like most traditional local buildings in Tenerife, the walls are thick (a large thermal mass keeps the heat out) and are painted in bright colours. I particularly like the arched openings in the end walls of this shelter.

I know it’s more expensive to build a bespoke bus shelter than an off-the-peg one. I know things with thatched roofs require more maintenance than a modern metal framed bus shelter. I know that a North Yorkshire vernacular bus shelter isn’t as bright a waiting place as an all glass (well, all polycarbonate probably) bus shelter, assuming such a thing could survive the local climate for any length of time. But somehow these sympathetic and unusual bus shelters say something about the importance of public transport to local communities which a standard issue model manifestly never achieves.

Further Reading

Historic England listing citation for Broad Clyst bus shelter, here

The history of Westcott’s First World War soldiers, and the shelter which commemorates one, via Dorking Museum’s website, here

4 thoughts on “Vernacular Spectacular: Bus Shelters Which Break the Mould

  1. Of course, the elephant in the room is the age of the shelters. All those British shelters you are lauding are *old*; those you dislike are all much more modern.

    I’d be intrigued to know how many of the traditional shelters are actually used by bus passengers and what those passengers think of them; things that look good are not necessarily very practical, although I do hope those shelters you like are equally liked by their users.

    As a bus user I’d rather have the modern polycarbonate shelter than the metal-advertising-frame which it will have replaced, although financially the advertising frame would have been better for the local authority’s budget as it would have been paid for by the advertising agency (generally AdShel in the “Good Old Days”).

    From the users’ point of view correct fitting of shelters is also important; Lincoln’s temporary Tentercroft Street bus station is a perfect example of how not to do it with shelters backing onto a wall but facing out to the prevailing winds (and rain!), meaning people actually stand *behind* the shelters to get some shelter from the weather…
    (No current street view or satellite images on Google, unfortunately, but a good picture at http://thelincolnite.co.uk/2016/08/lincoln-bus-passengers-say-new-temporary-station-hard-find-confusing/)

    1. Thanks – that was very thoughtful and interesting. It’s not that I dislike the modern bus shelters referred to because they’re new, but because they’re just not very good (in my opinion, of course), lacking style, substance or attractiveness. But most of them in this article are indeed old – perhaps this is a reflection that for whatever reason we’ve often decided not to build very nice bus shelters recently, or indeed put them the right way round, as you note (I hate that). It often seems more thought went into design of bus shelters in previous decades.

      As very long time readers will have realised, I’m a generally a bit of a neophyte. So I’d argue that I don’t like old bus shelters per se, but just interesting and attractive ones, which many modern ones aren’t. And most of the awful old ones will have fallen down anyway, leaving just the best ones behind…

      What I’d really like more of are interesting, well-designed modern shelters. Although most of the ones in this earlier article (https://thebeautyoftransport.com/2014/03/10/neun-kunstlerischen-bushaltestellen/) are fairly bonkers, there’s one right at the end which would make a perfectly serviceable and practical bus shelter and be a considerable improvement on the general offerings. And I also like this modern bus shelter in Germany: https://thebeautyoftransport.com/2014/04/02/orange-in-roof-and-claw-bus-shelter-by-peter-eisenman-aachen-germany/

  2. I wonder what you would make of the shelters at Fairy Cross, on the A39 in North Devon:

    http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1460117

    There are actually two shelters on either side of the road, served by the 319 bus route which operates between Barnstaple, Bideford, Clovelly and Hartland. They appeared about ten years ago and were a local initiative. The hexagonal shelters are built of stone with slate roofs and are identical, except that the interior of the Hartland-bound shelter is aquamarine blue and the Bideford-bound shelter is orange.

  3. Pingback: Buses for fun!

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