We Could Show You Incredible Things (the Beauty and Mystery of Railway Station Adoption)

Right across the country, local people are beautifying their railway stations. You might not notice these projects as you speed through a station on a train, especially if you have your head buried in a book or mobile phone. But if you get on or off at one such station, you’ll have appreciated the human touch of artwork, flowers or something else elevating your station’s waiting environment beyond merely the basic infrastructure needed for you to catch a train. I’ve been getting on and off at many different stations since the summer, and you might be surprised to discover that there are thousands of these projects.

These hauntingly beautiful solargraphs are displayed at Bishopstone station (the charms of which I have had a change of mind on; having got over my initial dislike of the station’s awkwardly-added gun turrets). They were created by pinhole cameras with exposure times of many weeks. The locations of the cameras across the surrounding area were chosen by local schoolchildren in a project enabled by Sussex CRP. Photo courtesy of ACoRP ©.

I started work in July for the Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP). It’s an organisation that supports and promotes community involvement in railways and railway stations, and acts as a membership organisation for people involved in those activities. We support over 60 Community Rail Partnerships (CRPs) in which representatives from local communities come together to promote and increase useage and awareness of their railway in the local community, working with schools, local businesses, tourist attractions, and public bodies in the area.

We also have hundreds of “station adopters” or “station friends” members, groups of people who look after their local railway station. There are estimated to be more than 1,000 such groups altogether, on a railway network of some 2,500 stations. They might not be particularly interested in the railway in and of itself. For many station friends, meeting other people and doing something to improve the local environment is its own reward. The range of activities undertaken by station friends is astounding. They organise events like tea parties at the station, or carol services at Christmas. They stock free book exchange bookshelves in ticket halls or waiting rooms. They install local information boards telling you how to get out into the countryside or where to find places of interest.

Station friends keep an eye on their station, and report faults to the relevant train operator; invaluable at unstaffed stations between the train operator’s own scheduled checks. Some station friends brush down and wash up their stations, keeping them spick and span. They paint faded and peeling woodwork so that their town or village has a railway station it can be proud of. People have installed memorials to local people; a special focus amongst CRPs at the moment is commemorating those who died in the First World War, with particular consideration of railway workers who signed up to go and fight, and who never came home. CRPs and station friends have also worked to repair and refurbish stations, especially where disused areas can provide a home for community activities.

This artwork at Freshford station is part of series memorialising the artist’s son, with each board representing a year of his life, with the colours of the squares reflecting the day’s activities. Photo courtesy of ACoRP ©.

With this blog’s particular focus on aesthetics, I’m always impressed by the range of activities which add extra visual appeal to stations (that said, I’m working with a station friends group which wants to run an audio art installation, so it’s not just the visual arts that the community rail sector concerns itself with). This article features some of the most interesting and attractive examples I’ve come across of community rail projects adding aesthetic value to stations, but it still only barely scratches the surface.

CRPs and station friends are often to be found installing artworks at their stations. On the blank spaces of stations walls, pictures, mosaics and murals have been installed celebrating the local area, local history and the local community. The artworks have been produced by children, professional artists, amateurs, street artists whose work is often found challenging or unwelcoming in other parts of town, the young and the old alike.

At Montpelier station in the suburbs of Bristol, Severnside CRP engaged a local street artist to design a mural which now decorates practically the entire station. It has transformed an often vandalised station into somewhere connected to, and respected by, the local community:

If they’re not bringing art to stations, community rail groups might well be undertaking planting schemes. The size and scope of the projects can range from small flower tubs or hanging baskets to large gardens. They can be decorative and full of flowers, designed to play their part in Britain in Bloom-type competitions. They might be designed to attract bees, butterflies and other insects by providing nectar rich plants across most of the year.

Sometimes, the gardening efforts are focussed on herbs and vegetables, with station users encouraged to harvest and take home what is grown. And it very often turns out that a local school has been involved in the planting and watering (supporting the science curriculum, no doubt) or commuters have been roped into donating the last of the water in their bottles, as they head home. One station group grows hops on the platform to be turned into beer by a local brewery.

Many CRPs have worked with The Bee Friendly Trust on large planters designed to attract bees and other pollinators. Photo courtesy of ACoRP ©.

And they do it all for free. All this activity beautifying and making more attractive the railway, and the small part of a town or village that a railway station occupies, comes at no real cost to the train operators. Train operators provide an initial and refresher safety briefings to station friends, and might then give out a number of free tickets to say thank you, but that’s about it. ACoRP offers small grants to help buy materials and equipment, but station adopters give their time, labour and skills for free.

One of my favourite station gardens is on one of the platforms at Kentish Town in north London. Community Rail isn’t just a rural activity but can be found in the heart of big cities. Here, the planting provided by Transition Kentish Town softens the hard materials from which the station is constructed. Photo courtesy of ACoRP ©.

Community rail at stations (though the community rail sector covers far, far more than just that) is, in short, a beautiful idea. It is beautiful both in conception and what it delivers. Yet when you stop to think about it, it is also a very, very strange and remarkable idea.

After all, you don’t find people adopting their local supermarket, and planting up its window boxes. You might find volunteers working in their local library, but they’re not adding artworks to the outside of the building to spread joy to passers-by. There’s nothing of any scale like it on the rest of the transport network either. There is no Friends of Luton Airport installing a herb garden outside the main entrance so that returning passengers can take home some fresh tomatoes and basil. There are a few bus shelters that have been adopted by their local communities (one on Unst in Shetland is a famous example) but they are vanishingly rare. And I don’t think there’s a single bus station with a Friends group.

Near Baltasound on the Isle of Unst is “Bobby’s Bus Shelter”, after a young resident whose wish for a new bus shelter to replace a demolished one he used, was taken up by the local newspaper. It is looked after, and decorated by, the local community cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Nicholas Muttongeograph.org.uk/p/955884

So why do they do it? This is not only a good question, but also one that people in community rail find very hard to articulate an answer to. A few weeks ago I was at ACoRP’s annual awards ceremony, and I took the opportunity of asking Paul Salveson, one of the leading lights of the early community rail movement in the 1980s, for his thoughts. Even he found it difficult to say precisely what drove people to want to adopt their local railway station. I’ve asked the chairs of various station adoption groups, and never got a simple answer. It’s not because the people I’ve asked aren’t eloquent or intelligent, but rather because the impetus partly derives from complicated, deep-rooted forces.

The desire to adopt a railway station draws on something culturally very deep, connected I think, to both history and culture. As such, there is no simple pat explanation, but rather a tangled set of reasons responding to our long relationship with the railway industry.

This bug hotel at Attenborough station promotes bio-diversity. It is also in the shape of the British Rail double arrow logo and the designer, Tim Sexton, used the BR Corporate Identity Manual to ensure the proportions are correct. Photo courtesy of ACoRP ©.

Railway stations have been around for a long time. The British did, after all, invent them (well done us). They have been around long enough now to form part of the historic environment and afforded the same level of respect as castles, ancient monuments, and country houses. But no-one seems to be planting flower tubs and hanging baskets on guildhalls or old farm buildings.

At one time during the heyday of the railways in the Victorian era, the most respected professional people in a small community would have been the vicar, the doctor and the station master. The societal import of the railway on the day-to-day life of a town might have diminished since then but a community memory of that import has carried down to today, and the sense of the presence of the railway as important, in some ill-defined manner.

The unusual psychic scar caused by the Beeching-era railway cuts, which has been explored here before (The Beauty of Transport 4 May 2016) plays a role too, I think. Communities with a railway station know that the situation is not a given, so there is a celebratory aspect of station adoption, I suspect; a sense that a community has a valuable asset in a railway station, so it should be looked after as such.

Local charity Acorn Village Mistley created this poem and mural for the underpass at Manningtree station. It shows the nearby River Stour. Photo courtesy of ACoRP ©.

Railway stations also perform a cultural role that has become increasingly unusual, as a communal meeting space. We no longer meet at the village pump to exchange gossip, and many of us eschew the dwindling number of street markets or small shops in favour of impersonal visits to vast supermarkets housed in warehouses on the edge of town.

Fewer of us go to church now, while libraries, one of the last of the great public meeting and mixing places, are facing savage cuts to opening hours or even their very existence. And with the rise in reading on electronic devices, physical visits to libraries are declining even without it being made more difficult to do so by shorter opening hours. Remember what I said about station adopters providing book exchanges at stations? Commuters might not be visiting their local library any longer, because they might not even be in town when the library is actually open. But they’re passing through the station, dropping off and picking up books; the ultimate no-charging-required, no-flat-batteries-ever, on-train entertainment system.

They might not be the most dramatic pieces of artwork, but community rail art can still be full of emotional connection and ownership. These stencils on the footbridge at Alexandra Palace station were painted by different members of the local community, under the watchful eyes of the Friends of Ally Pally Station. You’ll often see passengers stopping to check their particular stencil. You can also get a sense of who painted them; the lower ones were generally applied by children. Photo courtesy of ACoRP ©.

The railway station is in many towns today one of the last places where you might bump into friends or neighbours by accident. And if we are more reticent about exchanging pleasantries with other residents of our town now that we know them so much less well (we probably know far distant Twitter and Facebook friends better than we know the people three doors down our own street), a railway station is still a place where we are reminded that they do actually exist. Loneliness is a real and increasing problem for society, and social clubs aren’t always built around the kind of practical and hands-on kind of activities that many people prefer. A station friends group, on the other hand, can always use someone who can dig or scrub or make planters or bug hotels. It’s a great way to find like minded people and get some valuable social contact.

It is educative, surely, to consider the only other class of building which has a widespread and robust tradition of volunteers decorating it, and one which I have touched on above. Church attendance might be declining but there are still plenty of people who will supply and arrange the flowers in their church, chapel, or other place of worship. Like adopted stations, churches can be found with volunteers tending their grounds (there is a strong movement of managing graveyards as wildlife-friendly areas), and hosting community events.

At Smethwick Rolfe Street, local students design this splendid mural, which reflects the diverse local community by including the words “love thy neighbour” in an array of different languages spoken in the neighbourhood of the station. Photo courtesy of ACoRP ©.

Churches and railway stations have also filled very similar roles in the past, and this has woven itself into our cultural understanding of both types of building. Churches, pre-industrial revolution, were for most people in a town or village their only exposure to the sense that there was something bigger than their immediate surroundings. Travel of any distance was an unusual activity for most. You could quite easily be born, live, marry, reproduce and die all within a walkable area, especially in smaller communities. A church gave weekly exposure to the idea that there was something ‘out there’, beyond the daily grind of life and work, that we had souls which would one day escape a limited mortal existence for spiritual freedom. It might not have been tangible, but it must have been an extraordinary idea.

Then the railways came.

The construction of a railway station was an illustration not only that there was something beyond the experience of just one town or village, but the opportunity to actually go there. Escape from one’s surroundings was suddenly possible, right now, in person, and not in some abstract form attainable only after death. The mass movement of people began and has never let up since. We’ve gone further and faster and more frequently ever since. At least we did until Concorde was withdrawn from service and the top speed of travel fell back for the first time in post-industrial history (The Beauty of Transport 17 February 2016).

Devon & Cornwall CRP installed vinyl promotional artworks in this platform waiting shelter, instantly transforming this slightly unforgiving industrial design into a window on a world of local wonders. Photo courtesy of ACoRP ©.

We take it so completely for granted that we can now travel vast distances to seek new experiences, find new jobs, meet new people (has there ever been a greater gene-mixer than the railway?) that we often forget just how great the change wrought by the arrival of the railway into a town for the first time must have been. At least we do consciously; somewhere much deeper in our psyches is the echo of that extraordinary realisation that a railway station was freedom, and choice; the throwing off of the shackles of geography. Churches meant a connection to a larger spiritual world; railway stations meant a connection to a larger physical one.

So here we are caring for our churches, which isn’t anything to do with my job (although I find myself comforted that the tradition continues), and caring for our railway stations, which very much is. Those thousands of volunteers planting, painting, cleaning, baking, brewing and all the other incredible things they do are responding, nearly two hundred years later, to one of the greatest societal changes ever wrought. And I love them for it.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP) website, here

6 thoughts on “We Could Show You Incredible Things (the Beauty and Mystery of Railway Station Adoption)

  1. Hmmm… You call it murals and artists, but to me it’s just graffiti and vandalism.

    Isn’t there far too much of that already on coaches, stations, bridges and trackside, without encouraging even more? Glad I don’t have to visit Montpelier !

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