Architectural critic Ian Nairn is famous for inventing the word “subtopia” (he didn’t like same-y suburbs) and collaborating with Nikolaus Pevsner on The Buildings of England series of architecture gazeteers. He had this to say about Christ’s Hospital station in Sussex, when the Sussex edition was published in 1965: “One of the best examples in southern England of an unaltered Late Victorian railway building…It is worth preserving entire.” That’s quite the accolade. Here it is, then:
You won’t be surprised to discover that this isn’t quite what Nairn was talking about. When Nairn visited, Christ’s Hospital was one of those slightly bizarre major railway junctions in the middle of nowhere, of the sort the British railway network made something of a speciality out of (see also Verney Junction, Halwill Junction etc). It had seven platforms, served railway lines in four directions and had station buildings befitting its grandiose aspirations. “Polychrome brick buildings, huge wooden platform roofs on steel girders, with a taut and suave loping rhythm on the bargeboards … Platforms 4 and 5, serving the branch line to Guildford, are enchantingly set at an angle to the rest,” explained Nairn in The Buildings of England: Sussex. Here’s what he meant, in terms of the polychrome brick buildings, of which the main station building was the leading example:
Today, however, it’s pretty much all vanished. It’s a tiny encapsulation of the story of the Beeching cuts, their pre-emption by British Railways itself, and an example of one of the most notable failures of early transport modelling on Britain’s railways.
The station opened in 1902, on the site of a disused dairy platform. The farm estate which had used the dairy platform had been purchased by Christ’s Hospital school in the late 1890s, when it was looking to relocate from its original site in London. The London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR), which operated the line past the site of the dairy platform, had been considering whether to open a new station there anyway, in the hope of promoting residential development and attracting new passengers to its trains. In this, it was probably trying to emulate a tactic which had already been successfully employed by the Metropolitan Railway as it stretched out into the Middlesex countryside.
The LB&SCR’s site for its planned West Horsham station was ideal, because it was a location where several lines met; one northwards to Guildford and then on to London, one southwards to Shoreham and then on to Brighton, a line eastwards to Horsham and then by one of two routes to London, and a line westwards which eventually reached Chichester and Portsmouth. With such a choice of destinations, it would have plenty of passenger appeal. The arrival of Christ’s Hospital school would only add to business, with all the schoolchildren coming and going every day. The station would be opened as ‘Christ’s Hospital (West Horsham)’ in recognition of the railway’s important new neighbour, and would eventually lose the ‘West Horsham’ bit as time went on.
Christ’s Hospital school itself is an extraordinary institution, a boarding school with a startling range of subjects available for study, and a highly unusual approach to its charging scale for school fees, providing higher levels of bursaries to its pupils than any other independent school in the country (it says; I haven’t checked the math, you understand). Established in the 1500s, when it moved from London it brought with it a style of architecture that drew on its historic origins. Though built at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries, the school looks very Tudor in its architecture. Nairn wasn’t actually very impressed, calling it, “A weak mixture of Gothic and Elizabethan.” I rather like it though:
I actually prefer it to the station the LB&SCR built in an attempt to match the school’s architecture. I don’t think it looks all that much like the school, and though the checkerboard patterning in the round-headed arches in the gable ends is quite pretty, I’m not sure as a whole it’s massively better than a station like Sheffield Park (not far away, and still surviving on the Bluebell Railway). Regardless of its aesthetic merits, it was an expensive proposition, no doubt made more costly by the construction of the station’s seven platforms to cope with all the passengers the LB&SCR expected, and the long school trains full of students.
There was just one problem. The passengers never came.
It is one of those great railway stories, which might be apocryphal, but which also have the ring of absurd truth about them, that no-one had told the LB&SCR one important fact about Christ’s Hospital school. That being, that it was a boarding school. There would be no daily inrush of school children in the morning, nor mass outflow of them in the evening. And given that the school had also bought up all the land around the station, and had no desire to fill its environs with housing either, there would be no residential development either. The station, all seven platforms of it, was a gigantic white elephant. It was a handy place to change trains, but there was little reason to travel there, or catch a train from there, except for the few times a year when school terms started or finished.
Nairn must have visited Christ’s Hospital station sometime before 1965, and it was a good job too. Just as the Sussex edition of The Buildings of England was published, the northwards-running line from the station to Guildford closed for good. It had been nominated for closure in Dr Richard Beeching’s infamous 1963 report The Reshaping of British Railways. But the truth is that the line had been all but run into the ground by British Railways in the years before Beeching arrived, with its awkwardly timed and irregular trains putting off passengers. You could possibly point to the decision by the Southern Railway not to include the line in its electrification programme, when it reached Guildford and Portsmouth in the 1930s, as the moment that the Guildford-Horsham line’s owners started to think that it was maybe not one they were desperate to retain. It’s a reminder that although Beeching was undoubtedly an axe-man, he wasn’t wielding the axe wholly anew.
The southwards-running line to Shoreham was arguably a more regrettable loss, closing in 1966, and it’s a line that if in existence today wouldn’t be considered for closure. It would probably be serving a whole bunch of dormitory towns populated by London commuters; but maybe this is a fate the small towns on the route might be glad to have avoided?
The expensive station building at Christ’s Hospital was demolished in the mid-1970s; again, you’d never be allowed to do it now if it still survived. The station was remodelled and its many platforms reduced to two. The two charmingly-angled platforms which served the Guildford line are still there, crumbling away in the undergrowth. Otherwise, apart from an old goods shed, and the partially filled-in remains of the original pedestrian subway under the platforms, there’s very little left as physical reminders of the old station.
It’s a cautionary tale of the need to ensure that you have a likely market of new passengers for any station you build. I’d like to say that we don’t build massive railway stations that quickly become white elephants anymore, except that the examples of Ashford International and Waterloo International prove that we do.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Holland, Julian (2015): Exploring Britain’s Lost Railways. Collins: Glasgow
Nairn, Ian and Pevsner, Nikolaus (2001): The Buildings of England: Sussex. Penguin Books: London
How to find Christ’s Hospital station
You can’t find the old station, because it’s been demolished, but the modern version is, via The Beauty Of Transport‘s map