You know how I make you sit through my holiday photos from time to time because that’s just what my family does? Well bad news everyone, I’ve been on holiday again, to the land before time, at least as far as railway station architecture is concerned. Today I’m going to show you a couple of stations in the north-east of England that ably illustrate what railway architecture was like before anybody really knew what railway architecture was.
The early days of the railways were a time of terror for potential users, much as the information technology revolution has been for many people in our own time. The railways were a frightening, world-changing, social structure-shattering innovation that many barely understood. Just as personal computing devices have become successful today through a skin of user-friendly interfaces which have allowed a wide range of people to become comfortable with them, so the early railways were dressed to inspire confidence, reducing fear of the new technology, and attracting users.
There were two main visual approaches to reducing the fear of the railways amongst the populace. Firstly, there was the appropriation of domestic architecture and design. Manchester Liverpool Road, the oldest surviving inter-city railway terminus in the world, is a good example. Secondly, there was the monumental approach, instilling confidence in the safety, security, and useability of the railway through the use of grand architecture with roots in longstanding historical tradition. You can see it in the castellated turrets of Kilsby Tunnel, and in the noble architecture of that paean to the Railway King George Hudson, Monkwearmouth station. While Monkwearmouth station looks like a small country manor house, another of Britain’s most famous early railway stations, at Huddersfield in Yorkshire, looks the very image of a large country manor house.
But today we’re going to look at two smaller stations, much less famous, which also demonstrate the desire of the railway pioneers to produce reassuring-looking stations. Whitby station was built in the 1840s (probably – Historic England is unusually reticent in assigning a date and even Wikipedia is only prepared to say that an earlier railway line was taken over by the York and North Midland Railway in 1845, with a new station built subsequently). Scarborough station was built in 1845, also for the York and North Midland Railway, and the company’s regular architect George Townsend Andrews designed both. To put them into some historical context, Liverpool Road opened in 1830 and Huddersfield station wouldn’t open until 1847. In Whitby and Scarborough stations, therefore, we’re delving deep into railway history. Monkwearmouth wouldn’t open until 1848, but the York and North Midland Railway was part of Hudson’s empire, so Whitby and Scarborough stations are ancestors of Monkwearmouth in a spiritual sense, even though the latter was by a different architect.
Although a terminus, Whitby’s main entrance is on the side, rather than the elevation perpendicular to the tracks which is the arrangement that eventually became most common for railway termini. It’s worth noting though that London’s King’s Cross station has recently reverted to a layout with its main entrance on the side, following the opening in 2012 of John McAslan and Partners’ new Western Concourse.
Whitby doesn’t look much like we’ve come to expect a typical railway station to appear. Its main entrance and the secondary one on the end are similar, featuring arcades of five or two round-headed arches respectively, under a modillon cornice and parapet. What’s a modillon cornice? It’s one of those cornices with little projecting bracket-y things running along underneath it. Look closely in the photographs and you’ll see it. It quite modest, being only a single storey building, and has a simple hipped slate roof over the main entrance. The warm sandstone, rusticated brickwork, and run of round-headed arches bring to mind buildings which would have been familiar to the sort of British person who had been on, or hoped to undertake, a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe: the architecture of ancient Rome. In particular, the arcades at Whitby station are very reminiscent of Roman aqueducts. And it was the kind of opinion-former who would go on a Grand Tour who you would want on side if you were hoping to convert everyone else to the cause of the developing railway industry. Even if you weren’t of the social class to be taking the Grand Tour, and didn’t know much about Roman architecture, the design of Whitby station worked in exactly the same way Roman architecture did as it spread across the Roman Empire. Being big, solid and impressive, it gave the sense that the forces of civilisation had arrived, whether you wanted them or not. Much of the time, admittedly, the locals did not. But by then it was too late, just as it would also prove too late for the critics of railway expansion in the middle 1800s. Romans and railways: they came, they saw, they conquered.
Opposite the station, the George Hotel was originally the Railway Hotel, and still has the carved sign to prove it. Historic England insists it dates from the late 18th Century, and that it was formerly the station hotel. But if it really is late 18th Century, it would predate the station by several decades. It certainly looks Victorian rather than Georgian and my guess is it’s actually a late 19th Century building (i.e. late 1800s), unless it was a pre-existing building adapated to serve as a railway hotel.
Despite being a remarkable survivor of the early railways, Whitby station has had something of a chequered history. Over the years it has gained and lost an additional two platforms. It even went down to a single platform in the era of the Beeching cuts, as several of the lines serving it were closed. Its second platform reopened in 2014, dedicated to trains operated by the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, a heritage operation which runs from deep within the spectacular North Yorkshire Moors National Park, and then over National Rail tracks into Whitby station. Even today, the station feels a bit neglected by the National Rail network. Its ticket office is staffed by the North Yorkshire Moors Railway rather than one of the privatised train operators, and the various train operating franchisees which have been responsible for it have never quite got round to removing old British Rail and Regional Railways signage (a fact which the geek in me loves, but the transport professional abhors). The soft stone used for the station is also showing signs of wear, and some has been replaced.
That’s before even mentioning the ineptitude of the latest franchise operator, Arriva, which a whole year after taking on the Northern franchise has still got no further in its branding programme than sticking white plastic sticky tape on station signage to cover the logo of the previous operator. I was going to make some laboured comment relating Whitby station’s travails to the undead existence of Count Dracula, one of Whitby’s most famous visitors, but I couldn’t make it work. Let’s move on.
Scarborough station, a few miles down the coast, makes for something of a contrast with Whitby’s somewhat neglected state.
The signage there has all been replaced by current operator FirstGroup with its Transpennine Express franchise’s latest branding. Both Transpennine Express and Arriva’s Northern franchise started on the same day, which only goes to show that it’s management effort that’s making the difference. As a result, Scarborough station feels a lot more loved than Whitby’s does. The shiny signage adds sparkle to the station, and sends the message that the new franchise is taking an interest – an aspect of rebranding exercises that critics are apt to overlook.
Just as with Whitby, Scarborough station’s main entrance was built on its side, rather than at the end of the platforms, which is unsurprising given that the two stations had the same architect and opened at about the same time. But while Whitby features arched arcades on its entrances, and has two of them, Scarborough has only the single entrance. The main feature of this frontage is three pedimented pavilions (in other words, they have pitched roofs wider than the rest of the building, and make a triangular shape when seen from the front). Each pavilion has two bays, the central pavilion’s windows having curved pediments and the those on the two outer pavilions having moulded cornices above. Again made of the same warm sandstone as Whitby, the arrangement is every bit as elegant, cultured and reassuring as you’d want if you were trying to convince the world that the railways were something to be relied upon, rather than feared. Any one of the pavilions is the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a landscape garden designed by Capability Brown.
But let’s be honest. This restrained, yet impressive and reassuring approach to architecture is not what drew your attention when you saw the photo, is it?
No, it was that ridiculous clock tower. The reason it looks like it has been dropped on the station from a different era and a great height is that it was. It wasn’t there when the station first opened, but was added in 1882. In contrast to the original station’s restrained classicism, this is a piece of outré baroque. It’s covered in fussy bits, from the domed lead roof with tiny round windows, down past the clockfaces under their broken pediments, all the way past no less than two sets of purely ornamental stone balustrades; and not forgetting the decorative urns, of course. It’s very Scarborough though, and if you want proof, take a look at one of the town’s most famous landmarks (and a wholly bonkers one; its design was based on the numerology of a calendar year), the Grand Hotel:
Whatever its architectural merits, and one could make a very persuasive argument that such a jarring addition doesn’t really have any, Scarborough station’s ludicrous clock tower is of course a monument to one of the ways the railways changed the country. In the years between Scarborough station opening, and its clock tower being added, the railways themselves revolutionised timekeeping. They were behind the introduction of a standardised national time, necessary to make railway timetables work properly.
The roof over Scarborough’s platforms, also by Andrews, is original and is one of the earliest surviving trainshed canopies anywhere in the world. It is made of wood and glass, supported by lightweight iron trusses resting on the stone walls of the train shed at the outer edges and cast iron columns linked by curved girders down the middle.
Scarborough station is also home to what is claimed to be the world’s longest railway platform bench, on platform 1. I’m unsure whether it’s been officially certified as such by the Guinness Book of Records, but it’s certainly very long. I had high hopes of posing at various points along it and then stitching together the results in Photoshop, but unfortunately platform 1 was closed for building works when I visited, so you’ll have to make do with a Wikimedia photo instead.
It’s certainly very long, and an excellent claim to fame if you think that being a marvellous example of some of the very earliest railway station architecture still in regular use just isn’t enough.
How to find Whitby and Scarborough stations
Bibliography and Further Reading
Historic England listing citation for Whitby, here
Historic England listing citation for Scarborough, here
Historic England listing citation for the George Hotel, Whitby, here
The North Yorkshire Moors Railway’s very useful history page, here