This time, a eulogy in advance. Taunton Bus Station is not quite gone, but it is definitely going. Still standing, but not for long, and no longer serving its purpose.
Opened in 1953, Taunton Bus Station was designed by H.A. Starkey, the architect of Tilling Group. Tilling Group owned Western National Omnibus Company, which began building a series of town centre bus stations in the early 1950s. Taunton was one of the first, along with the (now lost) Truro bus station (see a picture of the latter here).
Of the two, Taunton is/was by far the more stylish. Starkey produced something in that lovely unfussy civic style of the 1950s. Slipping on to the street before the 1960s architectural trends for flat walls, right angles and system buildings, Taunton Bus Station both looked forward to that clean but more austere design idiom, and looked back to the Streamline Moderne style of the inter-war years.
The bus station’s two-storey building has an oversailing upper floor finished in brick, referencing something even older than the inter-war style; the jettied upper floors of medieval timber-framed houses. For a bus station, this was eminently practical. The upper floor provides shelter for waiting passengers on the ground below. The upper floor, office accommodation for bus company staff, has a stylish run of windows wrapping around three sides of the building, with a small canopy projecting over. This would have given controllers a good view of bus operations below, with the canopy reducing glare from the sun. The front of the building is gently curved, and it is this, along with the windows and small canopy on the upper floor, that most strongly bring to mind the Streamline Moderne style of inter-war bus stations like those of Wallis, Gilbert for London Transport’s Country Bus division (The Beauty of Transport, 27 January 2015).
That Streamline style can also be found at the eastern side of the bus station site, where a retaining wall curves at its end, and is emblazoned with extruded “BUS STATION” lettering. This side of the bus station has another two-storey building, but a more angular one here, with staff accommodation above and a lower floor containing passenger toilet facilities.
The main waiting room / ticket office / information centre is in the lower floor of the central building, where large windows would have afforded passengers an easy view of their buses arriving, and allowed plenty of natural light inside. Ceramic tiles on the exterior walls are practical and would have been chosen as a finish which was easy to keep clean.
The bus station passed to the Western National division of the National Bus Company (NBC) when Britain’s buses were nationalised in 1969, and eventually to First Group in 1999, after Western National was privatised in the late 1980s.
I would like to show you pictures of the bus station when newly built, but there seem to be no such pictures available on the web. I would also like to show you photos of the interior of the waiting room in its original condition, but again there seem to be no such images available. Certainly the fixtures and fittings you can glimpse in the photos in this article are not original. The bus station was given a refresh a few years ago when transport design agency Best Impressions was employed to overhaul the visual identity of FirstGroup’s local bus operations. Its bright and breezy “The Buses of Somerset” branding sits very well on the 1950s bus station, demonstrating that old truism that good quality designs will complement each other even when the styles are different or separated by decades.
The lack of easily available images of Taunton Bus Station through the years, compared to the town’s railway station for instance, is symptomatic of a general lower level of interest in bus architecture than railway architecture. The National Transport Trust has always attempted to raise the profile of transport heritage across all modes, and its “Red Wheel” scheme for sites of important transport heritage saw Taunton Bus Station awarded a red wheel plaque in 2015 as, “a rare survivor of a corporate style once common in towns and cities nationwide.”
The reason such buildings had become rare was because so many town centre bus stations were sold off and redeveloped after privatisation of the NBC, a sad story told in this earlier article (The Beauty of Transport, 18 May 2016). The economics of running bus stations simply don’t work for most private bus operators, and the lure of realising the value of the land on which they sit is nigh on irresistible given the current financial issues facing the bus sector.
It is interesting to reflect at this point that privatised train operators do not have to bear the full costs of running and maintaining their railway stations, which instead are owned by national rail infrastructure company Network Rail; a company fully owned by the state. One can imagine an alternative history in which bus stations were vested in a ‘Network Bus’ company after bus privatisation in the 1980s, with the state recognising its responsibility underwrite the provision of these critical pieces of public transport infrastructure. Bus operators could instead have paid an access charge to Network Bus just as train operators now do to Network Rail. We would not have lost so many bus stations, and bus passengers would have continued to enjoy the benefits of easy interchange, enclosed waiting rooms, toilets and all the other facilities proper bus stations offer.
Despite its 2015 Red Wheel plaque celebrating it as a rare survivor, just four years later the announcement came that Taunton Bus Station would close with the site sold off for non-transport purposes, the buyer apparently being Somerset West and Taunton Council, which already owns part of the land on which the bus station was located.
The Buses of Somerset noted of its bus station that “the rising costs of even day-to-day maintenance has made it totally uneconomic, let alone the heavy investment that would be needed to bring it up-to-date and fit-for purpose for the future.” So, on March 27 2020, almost unnoticed as the country suffered through Covid-19 lockdown and panic, the last buses called at Taunton Bus Station. Although the bus station still stands for now, it will soon be gone. As with most bus station closures following privatisation of the bus industry, the new arrangements will not be to the benefit of local bus passengers.
The proposed new use for the site is a ‘cultural quarter’ (as if transport is not a part of our cultural history…) with food and drink outlets and possibly a hotel. In the short term it might be used as a temporary car park. “Public transport has to keep improving if we are to reduce car use,” noted Taunton Chamber of Commerce at the time of the sale, failing to explain quite how closing a bus station conveniently located in the town centre in favour of a temporary car park, losing a central ticket office and waiting room, and requiring bus passengers to use smaller bus stops scattered around the town centre, represents a public transport improvement.
And another one bit the dust.
Further Reading and Bibliography
National Transport Trust’s Red Wheel citation for Taunton Bus Station, here
The Somerset County Gazette articles linked to in the text above
…and anything else linked to in the text above