This is a good game: get a group of railway enthusiasts together and ask them to name all the Grade I listed English mainline railway stations (Wales and Scotland have their own listing regimes). There are only six, though you can win some bonus points with a couple more.
The big London termini of St Pancras (read about it on The Beauty of Transport here), King’s Cross and Paddington are fairly easy to guess, so that’s three. Bristol Temple Meads usually comes up after a bit of head scratching, though part of the reason for its listing is because of the intactness of the original Brunel-designed terminus at the station, which is no longer used by trains. I’d thought there was a plan to re-use it for the new electric services from London, but this seems to have fallen by the wayside, along with the electrification itself. That makes four.
Number five is Newcastle, often forgotten but a worthy recipient of statutory heritage body Historic England’s highest level of listing.
So what is number six? It must be York, mustn’t it? But no, York is only Grade II* listed, perhaps due to an unsympathetic extension on the west side of the station.
You get bonus points for Manchester Liverpool Road and Birmingham Curzon Street (read about them on The Beauty of Transport here and here), both surviving but neither in regular mainline railway use today. So neither of them count as the sixth station.
I’ll put you out of your misery. It’s Huddersfield.
Well off the inter-city network on which the other five Grade I listed stations sit, it’s something of a secret railway architecture gem. That said, those in the know have heaped praise upon it, with Simon Jenkins’ recent book Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations saying it is, “one of the few stations fit to rank with the great union termini of the continent.” Jenkins also notes Betjeman’s enthusiasm for the station (“the most splendid facade in England) and Pevsner’s (“among the best” stations, he apparently said).
Huddersfield station belongs to the grand classical tradition of the early railway, a style seen at other early stations including Whitby, Monkwearmouth and on the lost Euston Arch (read about them on The Beauty of Transport here, here and here). But perhaps nowhere was Classicism more grandly employed on the railway than at Huddersfield station, which opened in 1847.
It looks for all the world like a grand country house transplanted into a town centre. With its huge central portico and colonnades stretching away to both sides, Historic England suggests a resemblance to nearby Wentworth Woodhouse, a vast country mansion. At each end of the colonnade is a smaller building. Both are now in use as public houses but originally they were both ticket offices. One belonged to the Huddersfield & Manchester Railway and Canal Company and the other to the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway, as can be seen from the badges on their parapets.
The Huddersfield and Manchester (absorbed into the London & North Western Railway), and the Manchester & Leeds Railway (swallowed up into the expansionist Leeds & Yorkshire) agreed to join forces to build the station, but as so often in the early days of British railway development, relations between the two companies remained fractious, so the ticket offices were placed as far apart from one another as possible. The central portico features a splendid clock in its tympanum; I’m guessing it might be a later addition, railway time only just starting to be a thing in 1847, unless someone can confirm otherwise. I’ve tried, but so far failed, to find an illustration of the station at its opening to settle my doubts one way or the other.
Perhaps one of the most notable features of Huddersfield station is its location. Some of its grandeur draws from its impressive setting. Unlike many railway stations, which cannot easily be admired because they face onto a street, Huddersfield faces onto a huge public square. Approaching the station, the square gives the station space to breathe in its environment, and for observers to take in its grandeur. The other sides of St George’s Square are also lined with grand buildings built from the same sandstone.
The land on which the station was built belonged to the Ramsden family and its trustees (one of whom who lived at Wentworth Woodhouse, probably not coincidentally). The family and trust insisted both on the employment of the station’s architect James Pigott Pritchett, and the station forming part of a planned scheme for St George’s Square, which was laid out by William Tite. We have these early town planners, in the form of the Ramsden family and its trust, then, to thank for the station and its setting.
Away from the main station building, the old water tower at the far end of the car park has been sensitively converted into the head office of ACoRP, the Association of Community Rail Partnerships, using a range of environmentally friendly building techniques. It is separated from St George’s Square by some historic railings which are listed separately by Historic England (I love it when a set of railings gets its own listing) but only at Grade II.
Today, the station looks as spectacular as ever; it won a National Rail Award for Large Station of the Year in 2013, following a £1m+ restoration. At least, it impresses from the front. The only thing letting the station down these days (and Huddersfield is far from unique in this) is the state of the trainshed roof, formed of one larger and one smaller truss roof. Although the ornate bosses which hold the bracing elements together are impressive features, the overall condition of the roofs is poor. They are dirty and look unloved, and the larger roof is open to the skies along its ridge. Platform 4 still retains two of the original supporting columns which date from the construction of the roof. It was completed in 1886 (having collapsed a year earlier while under construction), transforming Huddersfield from a station with a grand building but just a single platform into a multi-platform station. And those two columns are glorious; cast iron Corinthian wonders.
Yet for all Huddersfield station’s grandeur, and its inclusion in the select list of Grade I listed stations, it’s a station that’s harder to love than it is to be impressed by. Like the country houses it resembles, it remains aloof; austere rather than approachable. The two pubs serve a very good beer, but they too are impressive rather than cosy, as such. The quarry tile floor in the King’s Head is particularly good and the subject of recent restoration, while the Head of Steam features a display of railwayana. Huddersfield station, it must be admitted, doesn’t so much go in for the Hygge.
The cute rating at Huddersfield is left in the hands (paws) of its most famous member of staff. The station features on a list slightly more esoteric than that of Historic England’s Grade I buildings; this being the list of stations with official station cats (see this The Beauty of Transport article for more on station cats). Felix is senior pest controller, not to mention a popular attraction at the station (apparently it’s considered a rare treat to see her awake and patrolling the platforms, but she’s always around when I’m there) with her own Twitter account, @FelixhuddsCat. She’s not always been so popular with the staff of ACoRP though. Rumour has it that she once got into their flower boxes…
As you know, I’m a sucker for impressive station architecture, and cats, so as far as I’m concerned this feline guardian of a Grade I listed station is all right by me. Just don’t mention it to my cat. She gets jealous.
One last thing. Huddersfield is lucky enough not only to have a railway station, but that increasingly rare thing, a proper bus station. If you want to know why the latter doesn’t get quite as much attention as the former, you might enjoy this thread on Twitter. Click on the tweet below to launch the thread in full, and prepare to be amazed by the glory of Huddersfield bus station…
No #TheBeautyOfTransport this week, but instead I thought you might like to see an example of overlooked transport architecture in Huddersfield. Huddersfield is famous for its vast and imposing railway station… [Thread] pic.twitter.com/CbZkc4hfrm
— Daniel Wright (@danielhwright) June 6, 2018
Bibliography and Further Reading
Jenkins, S (2017): Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations. Penguin/Viking, London
Historic England listing citation for Huddersfield station, here
Historic England listing citation for the railings at Huddersfield station, here
…and anything linked to in the text above.