Confused? You should be after a visit to Bristol Temple Meads, the ‘Brunel’ railway station most of which isn’t really, but rather is a bewildering conflation of several railway stations, extensions and alterations; at once existing in what appear to be several different time zones. Despite being hailed as one in the “trinity of great English provincial stations” (Jenkins, 2017), and being one of only six which is Grade I listed by Historic England, one of my day-job colleagues recently shocked the office by announcing that they were not very impressed with it; though I have to admit I could see their point. It takes quite of lot of work to discern what is going on at Temple Meads, and the various phases of its construction give a slightly confused feel to the station. It lacks the dramatic or spacious ticket hall or waiting area of other historic railway stations, which perhaps undersells it. Various parts of the station are also looking in need of some more care and attention than they seem to have received over recent decades.
Brunel’s contribution to the station came first, in 1840, with the arrival in Bristol of the Great Western Railway. His terminus faced onto Temple Gate, and was finished in a relatively unfussy style that some describe as Gothic (Jenkins, 2017), some as late-medieæval (Biddle and Nock, 1983) and others as Tudor Revival (Historic England). In a form that would become typical of larger railway termini over the following decades, a building was placed across the front and a trainshed built behind. The building housed offices for the GWR and the office range extended over the trainshed’s bufferstops, which apparently made the offices above rather smoky.
Thanks to the local topography, the railway tracks in the trainshed were above ground level, and passengers used to enter the building below them, reaching the platforms by stairs from an undercroft. Despite being an enthusiastic promoter of Gothic architecture himself, architect Augustus Pugin (designer of the interiors of the Houses of Parliament in London) was reputedly unimpressed with Brunel’s efforts, but had more time for the trainshed. The hammerbeam roof bears some resemblance to that of Westminster Hall in London, older than the current Houses of Parliament but incorporated within it, though Brunel’s trainshed is slightly wider. It is also a trick – the roof is actually cantilevered directly from the side walls of the trainshed and the hammerbeams are decorative. The trainshed originally covered five broad gauge tracks, but only two platforms; an under-provision of platforms with which other Brunel stations were bedevilled, hampering their operation for years afterward.
The 1840 station survives reasonably intact, though it has lost one of the gateways which used to flank the Temple Gate frontage. It is no longer in use as a railway station and is currently in a somewhat sad condition externally, with statues on the frontage having lost their faces and ground level windows replaced with unsympathetic large panes of glass. The carved scrollwork announcing “GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY COMPANY INCORPORATED BY ACT OF PARLIAMENT MDCCCXXXV” is so blackened it is nearly impossible to read; many people must pass by this building and have no idea what it once was, or its place in railway history. It seems a real shame that a Grade I listed building has been neglected to this extent.
Internally, the 1840 station fares better. It now houses “Engine Shed“, with the undercroft repurposed as an innovation and business hub, its slender columns one of the few obvious clues to the undercroft’s heritage.
In other parts of the old station, original features like the grand staircase, board room and various offices survive in good condition, some equipped with particularly splendid Tudor fireplaces. One can imagine Brunel warming himself in front of one of these, shortly before designing another engineering marvel straddling the fine line between genius and insanity.
Only a few years later, another railway – the Bristol and Exeter Railway – arrived at Bristol Temple Meads. Its tracks arrived from the south, whereas Brunel’s 1840 terminus was positioned south-west – north-east (the GWR’s tracks arriving from the east and then curving slightly into the station). Brunel was also the engineer for the B&E and designed a trainshed for this railway too, at right angles to his first. This marked the beginning of the end of Brunel’s involvement on the site though. In 1852, the B&E built itself a three-storey office block at Temple Meads. Architect S C Fripp designed this in a Jacobean style and it survives to this day, though again not in railway use, looking somewhat isolated on today’s station site though not unimpressive, despite being surrounded by a moat of parked cars. Again, unless you knew, you might be hard pressed to identify its railway roots. In contrast to the rest of Temple Meads station, Fripp’s building is listed at Grade II*, rather than Grade I.
The awkwardness of trying to run trains between the B&E and the GWR networks (much reversing up and down nearby tracks, I assume) meant that a connecting curve of track was constructed between the two railways at Temple Meads almost immediately, and this was itself reconstructed with additional platforms between 1865-78 under an impressive curving arched roof which survives to this day covering platforms 3-6. It is one of the highlights of the station, able to hold its own against the roofs at stations like York, Darlington or Newcastle, despite its smaller size. And while it might be smaller than some of its northern cousins, it is perfectly big enough, dwarfing even long intercity trains. Shorter local trains look almost lost underneath it, overwhelmed by its sheer scale.
The work to build this part of the station was the cause of the loss of the Brunel’s B&E trainshed. Brunel’s 1840 trainshed, meanwhile, survived but was left rather stranded by this phase of reconstruction. It was extended northwards (still with just the two platforms) to meet the newly rebuilt station, the centre of gravity of which had by this point moved north too.
Often confused with Brunel’s original 1840 trainshed, which is now a corporate venue called Brunel’s Old Station, this 1870s extension of Brunel’s trainshed mimics the style of the original (though with a slightly different roof profile and no fake hammerbeams) and is a valuable piece of railway architecture in its own right even if not by Brunel’s own hand. It closed to trains in the 1960s. In the early 2010s there were plans to reopen it for train services once more, but these were subsequently scuppered by a funding crunch and problems delivering the Great Western Electrification Project. Artists’ impressions are all that now remain of this aspiration.
One of the obstacles to easy restoration of train services is a signalling centre built across the approaches to the trainshed. The trainshed’s current use as a car park (just like the 1931 northern concourse at Leeds was used for a time (The Beauty of Transport 29 March 2017)) and a secondary entrance to Temple Meads leaves this important – even if not Brunel-designed – railway building feeling depressing and run down.
The rebuilt Temple Meads station of 1865-78 needed a new entrance, and it got one in the angle between the Brunel trainshed and its extension, and the curved platforms which brought B&E services into the main part of the station. This is today’s familiar main entrance. It is generally attributed to Matthew Digby Wyatt but not everyone agrees, with the Broad Gauge Society noting that the only signature on any drawings is that of the B&E’s engineer Francis Fox, who is more often credited only with the rebuilt station’s arched roof. Whoever was responsible, the new entrance returned to Gothic stylings, though in this case a rather fiddly French style of Gothic. A central clock tower over the entrance sports four pinnacles, and is flanked by two further pinnacles, but today it looks a fraction under-scale for such an important station.
A French Empire roof (Steven Parissien derides it as “Noddy-like” in The English Railway Station) which gave the entrance more vertical emphasis was lost to bombing during the Second World War but can be seen on old photos and drawings. Either side of the main entrance, new offices with crenellated walls and fanciful chimneys line the forecourt. They are fronted with an impressively long ridge and furrow canopy, the overall effect being to bring a degree of visual unity to the disparate parts of the station.
After the 1860s-70s reconstruction, Temple Meads (or Bristol Joint Station as it was then known), was finally allowed some recuperation time. That lasted until the 1930s when additional platforms were added to the east, beyond Fox’s arched roof. Here, the GWR’s chief architect Percy Culverhouse used the ceramic tiling and Art Deco lettering typical of GWR stations at the time (seen well at Culverhouse’s splendid Leamington Spa, and also at Exeter St Davids). Waiting room interiors on the 1930s platforms still retain Art Deco decorative features, again with a similar feel to those at Leamington Spa.
Although that was the last major rebuild of the station, later eras left their mark too. Some of the platforms still boast internally illuminated British Rail InterCity platform number signs in their boxy red enclosures, which must have arrived sometime around the 1980s, and signage notes InterCity’s refurbishment of the station’s trainshed in the early 1990s. After privatisation, Bristol Temple Meads was operated by the Great Western franchisee, but it passed to Network Rail’s direct operation in the 2010s, sadly too late to get a major stations logo of its own, at least initially while the station logos fell out of favour. Recently, however, a logo featuring the station’s clock tower and a hot air balloon above has started to appear (see it here) around the station. Network Rail’s blue signage and Brunel typeface now adds another layer of railway history. In the subway which connects the platforms, there are some nice pieces of recent mosaic art, featuring Brunel and his works.
“Temple Meads is a fine station, if somewhat lacking in heart,” asserts Simon Jenkins in Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations. It is probably a fair assessment. There is grandeur at the station, and lots of history, but it somehow lacks the panache of some other large British railway stations. The very fact that the various stages of its building and rebuilding jostle alongside one another in a clash of styles makes it interesting to railway historians, but lends it a cluttered and disunified appearance. It is fascinating to amble around the station spotting the 1870s “Way Out” signs, the 1930s GWR subway entrance signs, and the BR-era Rail Alphabet signage, but it does come across as a bit of a mish-mash.
The main entrance lets onto a splendid Gothic passageway which incorporates the ticket office and retail outlets. It is full of detail but barely big enough to handle the increasing number of passengers Temple Meads sees on a daily basis. There is little chance to admire the country church quatrefoils and pointed arch windows amidst the jostling passengers. The high ceiling adds drama but makes the passageway seem even narrower than it is. This isn’t somewhere to linger, and passengers have to get on to the platforms before they can find some personal space.
The station has also suffered from long-term lack of care and maintenance, and policy decisions with long-term consequences. Once under Fox’s roof, it is clear that despite the early 1990s trainshed refurbishment, the glazing in the roof is now filthy, making the platforms gloomier than they should be. The roof could really do with one of Network Rail’s splendid roof restoration jobs along the lines of those carried out at London King’s Cross or Carlisle. Happily it looks like that might be on the cards with a £40m roof renovation scheme planned, but with Network Rail’s budget always under pressure, projects that enhance the passenger environment are always targets if more money is needed for the operational side railway (trackwork, signalling, power supplies), fed by an unhelpful narrative from some that nobody cares what the railway looks like provided the trains run on time.
One of the reasons the roof is so dirty (not the only one; there is plenty of moss and algae on the outside) is that Bristol’s railway network is served by polluting diesel trains, bad for both the climate generally and air quality within the station particularly. One suspects that in mainland Europe, a commuter railway network like the one Temple Meads sits at the heart of would have been electrified years if not decades ago. Unfortunately, successive governments have never seemed keen on widespread railway electrification, which has proceeded only in fits and starts even on high-speed trunk routes. The Great Western Electrification Project was supposed to electrify the main line from London Paddington to Bristol via Bath, but was cut back as Network Rail struggled to contain costs on the project. With more experience of electrification under its belt and greater confidence that electrification projects can be delivered economically, one might have hoped that the completion of the lost parts of the Great Western Electrification Project would have been authorised by now, but sadly not. Instead, bi-mode Intercity Express Trains come roaring into and out of Temple Meads in diesel mode rather than under the wires.
Experience at Paddington, which has seen the vast majority of its trains converted to electric operation over the last few years, suggests another advantage of electrified railways in large stations: a reduction in noise. A big, hard echoey building like Temple Meads’ under its roof is the worst place to have diesel train engines powering up. It is, at times, painfully loud when waiting on the platforms. One longs instead for the hum of electric commuter trains to make the station somewhere to peaceably enjoy, rather than endure.
At a more micro level, some of the details within the station fail to live up to the station’s historical importance. Retail units, signage and poster frames have not always been installed sensitively with respect to the surrounding architecture. And the whole station has succumbed to the typical curse of British railway stations, with service ducts and cables crawling over the walls – or even punched through them – where contractors have connected various bits of new equipment to water, power or data supplies over the decades.
It is an extraordinary and depressing way to treat a Grade I listed building, almost unimaginable at any other similarly-listed building. Perhaps when it restores the roof, Network Rail might get around to tidying up the pipe and cable runs too. In the meantime, Temple Meads is a fascinating cornucopia of railway history for fans of such. For most passengers, however, passing through it might be a less impressive experience than its Grade I listing suggests.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Biddle, Gordon & Nock O. S. (1983): Railway Heritage of Britain, The. Michael Joseph Ltd: London
Jenkins, Simon (2017): Britain’s 100 Best Railway Stations. Penguin: London
Parissien, Steven (2014): The English Railway Station. English Heritage: Swindon
Historic England listing citation for Brunel’s 1840 station (‘Bristol Old Station’): click here
Historic England listing citation for Bristol Temple Meads (current) station: click here
Historic England listing citation for Bristol and Exeter Railway offices: click here
…and anything linked to in the text above