York station tends to get all the glory these days, but if you want the best (the original and best, in fact) big curved railway station, you’ll need to head another hour or so up the East Coast Main Line to Newcastle.
I’m fascinated and puzzled by the fact that York station is so much more famous than Newcastle. With its warm bricks and brown metalwork in the roof, not to mention the decoration in the trainshed’s spandrels and at the top of the columns, York is showier and more eager to win the admiration of passengers. But it also has the most ridiculous entrance, in which a small doorway leads from the portico into an awkward lobby, then a narrow corridor, then a scoot round the WHSmith in the old signal box, before you get onto the platforms.
At Newcastle, moving between the portico the platform is a much more straightforward walk, and a very dramatic one too, as passengers use a short passageway through the main station building before the station suddenly and spectacularly opens out into the trainshed beyond.
There is a chillier and more austere feel to Newcastle’s elegant trainshed than that of York’s. It’s an altogether more spare structure, its columns understated in decoration with a simple leaf motif around their tops. It is economical and quite wonderful, and like York the trainshed follows the curve of the tracks through the station, giving it a beautiful sinuousity and great visual appeal. I’m not sure whether the current grey paintwork scheme with blue and red highlights is original or a vestige of its days under GNER, which also had a blue/red colour scheme for its corporate identity (The Beauty of Transport 14 May 2014), but it certainly suits. The stonework of the station building is paler than the yellow-orange bricks at York too. Not by much, but enough. Newcastle’s cooler ambience is a perfect fit for those keen winds that come keening up the Tyne from the North Sea. Brought up on the south coast (not born a southerner actually, but taken there as a youngster) I never fail to be shocked by how cold it is in Newcastle. I swear that on my many visits there I’ve only been able to wear a short-sleeved shirt just once. The rest of the time it’s either raining, snowing, or that vicious wind is slicing straight into the smallest gaps of whatever clothing you’re wearing.
Despite that, Newcastle is a station I’m very fond of, for personal reasons. Newcastle (the city) has a reputation for retaining a remarkable number of the students who attend its university. I have no idea whether this is fact or just an urban myth, but it is certainly true in the case of my family. My sister went to university there and she never came back, so I although not a frequent user of Newcastle station, I’m a regular visitor.
I always find a lot to admire at Newcastle station. The roof is made of three arched spans, and is supported on its unfussy columns every third rib. This was a considerable advancement over some earlier stations in which columns supported every truss in a station roof, making Newcastle station more open and easier to move around. More importantly, Newcastle was amongst the first two stations in the world to use curved girders in its roof (along with Liverpool Lime Street, given a new roof at the same time). This allowed for the installation of an arched roof rather than the straight-sided ridged constructions of earlier stations.
But there are other, more subtle, features of the station to enjoy. Although the front of the station building runs straight and parallel with the road outside, the back wall curves along with the platforms, and is attractively punctuated by arched windows and doorways along its length.
Over the main doorways in and out of the station are carved medallions. Biddle and Nock (1983) mention that two of them are Victoria and Albert, who opened the station in 1850, but who is the third, in the middle? It looks like Edward VII, but why is he getting in on the act? The reason will become clear later.
The station’s Centurion Bar, meanwhile, is a stunning recent restoration of the refreshment rooms at the station. (Shall I write an article about the most attractive bars and restaurants at stations one day? I might, I think.)
Crossing the tracks is Newcastle’s elegant latticed footbridge, one of the visual highlights of the station, its long shallow arch over the tracks echoing the revolutionary roof above.
The station as seen today is the work of many hands. Its initial phases, dating from 1845-50, were designed by John Dobson for the York, Newcastle and Berwick Railway Company. Dobson also worked with Richard Grainger on a comprehensive redevelopment of Newcastle city centre in the 1830s and 40s. Though much of what later became known as Grainger Town has been lost, what remains is one of the most impressive and architecturally cohesive city centres in the country. Newcastle station, designed to fit in with that development, has a degree of visual connection with its surroundings found at few other locations; Huddersfield being notable as one such at St George’s Square, though on a smaller scale (The Beauty of Transport 27 June 2018).
Dobson worked with local hero Robert Stephenson (who else?) on the engineering of the trainshed roof, but himself received a medal for devising the rollers that allowed the shaping of the roof’s malleable iron curved ribs.
Yet the station isn’t what Dobson originally had in mind at all. He originally envisaged a more ornate building, traces of which can be found at the extreme ends of the station building where Tuscan columns decorate the exterior. But halfway through construction, the design was scaled back to something more simple. A planned hotel was omitted, with rooms instead squeezed into existing buildings on the station.
Approaching the station on foot its most notable feature is its massive portico, on which keyed arches are flanked by paired pilasters and there is a large clock on each of the portico’s three sides. But this isn’t Dobson’s work at all, rather that of Thomas Prosser in 1860, by which time the York, Newcastle and Berwick had become the North Eastern Railway. Dobson had planned a much grander portico in his original design as well as a grand tower, and according to some accounts was horrified by Prosser’s version. In the 1890s William Bell undertook some remodelling, adding additional canopies and the baroque confection of what is now the Centurion Bar.
More recently the previously open arches of the portico have been glazed-in; a project undertaken by Network Rail in early 2013. Like works of art, the best stations are never finished, just abandoned by their architects, only for someone else to pick up the baton later as operational requirements change. Though finding a place for Newcastle station in his book Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations, author Simon Jenkins is unimpressed with Network Rail’s work, describing the glazing of the portico as “thoughtless” and a “disaster”. He contends that the work, “lost the contrast of light and depth so important to a classical facade,” and that the loss of vehicle access in favour of ticket machines and retail facilities means that, “What had been epic became anaemic.” The joy of Jenkins’ writing is disagreeing with at least half of what he says (see also his misguided views on wind turbines for instance) and he is wrong about this too. The portico was designed for horse-drawn traffic, not the motorised vehicles which used it in later years. The portico became a noisy, smelly, chaotic space where pedestrians diced with death, dodging cars and taxis. Now, it is a practical and dramatic entrance to the station, and if you can find a more impressive location for ticket-purchasing on the national railway network, I’d be very surprised.
The station sits between two bridges over the Tyne, the High Level Bridge built at the time the station opened, and the King Edward VII bridge built later on (at which point, I assume, Edward VII’s portrait was added to the carvings over the station entrance). It is possible to take a train out of one end of the station, across one of the bridges, along the south bank of the Tyne, back across the other bridge, and straight back into the station. Someone should do it as a fun-sized rail tour.
The eastern approaches to the station were driven straight through the remains of Newcastle Castle, in a manner entirely disrespectful of the historic environment, but which was very popular during the early development of the railways (The Beauty of Transport 18 June 2014). Those approaches later formed one of the most famous railway scenes in the country, with the castle’s keep providing the perfect vantage point to look down onto a huge diamond crossing.
The station has shrunk since then; a number of platforms used for local services to the coast have been converted to car parking, the services having been transferred to the Tyne and Wear Metro system. The few remaining local services at Newcastle are operated by grim Pacer trains, the passengers forced to use them presumably wishing their services had been taken over by the Metro too. The diamond crossing has been lost to track rationalisation.
First listed in 1954, the station was eventually upgraded to Grade I status, placing it amongst a select few railway stations with a similar level of statutory protection. York, however, is still listed at Grade II*, so although York gets much of the glory, it’s Newcastle that gets the last laugh.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Historic England’s listing citation for Newcastle station, here
Jenkins, Simon (2017): Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations. Penguin: London
Biddle, Gordon & Nock O. S. (1983): Railway Heritage of Britain, The. Michael Joseph Ltd: London
…and anything linked to the text above