For the longest time, I knew of Harlow Town station only through photographs. In particular, a series of black and white photos taken shortly after the station opened in 1960, showing it in brand new condition, a marvel of Mid-Century Modern architecture. Although the style fell out of fashion later in the century as architects moved on to Post-Modernism and High Tech architecture, with varying degrees of success, the joys of Mid-Century Modern are gaining new recognition all the time.
The drawbacks of knowing a station mostly from early black and white photos, I realised as I arrived at Harlow Town, are twofold. Firstly, railway stations are frequent victims of being tinkered with and collecting clutter, generally not to their advantage. So the station I found wasn’t always the stripped-back, near clinical, building it was when first built.
And secondly, those black and white photos failed to prepare me for the fact that in real life, Harlow Town station is in full colour.
Coventry station (The Beauty of Transport 30 October 2019) is cited by many as the zenith of Mid-Century Modern architecture on the British Railway network, but that is no reason to ignore its predecessors. They might be smaller or lesser works but they explain the story of British Railways’ developing interest in this style of building. Coventry station didn’t arrive, fully formed, from nowhere. Earlier stations like Broxbourne and Banbury, and Harlow Town itself, contributed their genetic material.
Harlow Town station was rebuilt in connection with the development of Harlow New Town itself during the 1950s and 60s. But rather than draw inspiration from the domestic style of new town architecture (as does Banbury station), Harlow Town station responds more strongly to the civic and commercial architecture of the time.
A team comprising Paul Hamilton, John Bicknell and Ian Fraser were credited by British Railways with the design. John Ward and Arthur Quarmby were also on the team (Lawrence, 2018) while H H Powell was the Eastern Region’s Architect.
It should be little surprise to find not one, but two strong examples of Mid-Century Modern station architecture in close proximity in what is today’s Network Rail Eastern Region. This area – at one time British Railways’/Rail’s Eastern Region, and before that part of the London & North Eastern Railway, and before that the Great Eastern Railway – has long been quietly getting on with pioneering and developing innovative railway practices, albeit despite often being overlooked by the rest of the world in the process.
Consider, for instance, the Great Eastern Railway’s Decapod of 1902.
It was Britain’s first 10-coupled steam locomotive (that’s five axles-worth of powered wheel in contact with the rail). It was designed to prove that steam locomotives could match the then developing technology of electrically-powered trains in terms of acceleration. It did, though (not that it was a major consideration at the time) its local air pollution issues would have been rather worse than those of an electric train. What certainly did count against such a machine going into regular service was its weight, and the sheer amount of coal and water it consumed in proving its point; meaning that it would have consumed its on-board supply on anything other than very short runs. It would be another 17 years before a 10-coupled locomotive ran again on the British railway network. Again, it was a one-off, the “Lickey Banker”, designed to give a helping hand/buffer to trains struggling to get up the steep Lickey Incline in Worcestershire. And after that, it would be another 24 years before the War Department introduced Britain’s first fleet of 10-coupled locomotives for heavy freight services.
Meanwhile, the LNER’s Eastern routes were an early adopter of overhead electrification for suburban train services, with the route from London Liverpool Street to Shenfield completed in the late 1940s, initially using 1,500v DC supply systems. The West Anglia Main Line, on which Harlow Town is located, had to wait until the 1960s to be electrified between Liverpool Street and Bishop’s Stortford.
The modern-day Eastern Region, via its current passenger train operator Abellio Greater Anglia, is once again showing the way to a better railway future. Its fleet of Stadler-built intercity and regional trains are low-floor models with extending ramps which bridge the gap between train doors and platforms, revolutionising accessibility by allowing independent access to trains for travellers with mobility impairments. Similar Stadler trains are also due to enter service in the next year or two on the Merseyrail, Transport for Wales and Tyne & Wear Metro networks, and I am astonished that some British trains still on order are high floor models, now that a low floor train is available. But back to the story at hand.
The opening of Harlow Town’s rebuilt station in 1960 fit right into the animus of the Eastern Region, showcasing the most dramatic example up to that point of the new post-war architecture that was fascinating British Railways’ architects. The station had previously been called Burnt Mill after a nearby village, but was renamed as it was the most convenient station for the New Town of Harlow itself. What was then called Harlow station, the next one on the way out from London, was given the name Harlow Mill, in an attempt to make sure that everyone trying to get to the new town would use the right station, though it must have been confusing at the time.
The early black and white photos of Harlow Town station show a brave new world of Mid-Century Modernism. Everything is straight lines, clarity, and cleanliness. In the airy double-height booking hall, the arrangement of the staircase, station clock, and departures board is beautifully considered. The footbridge looks like the corridor of a contemporaneous corporate headquarters.
But what is there now? How much of the vision of the Eastern Region’s architects survives? Fortunately, quite lot. For those familiar with the photos of the station from its reopening, it is immediately apparent that a pair of waiting shelters on the platforms, in a matching aesthetic to the rest of the station, have disappeared. But the rest of the stations survives, without having been significantly extended, part-demolished, reconfigured or otherwise generally knocked about.
Harlow Town station has a pair of island platforms, linked by a footbridge which continues to the south of side of the tracks, where it delivers passengers into a booking hall. But that simple description of the station’s layout fails to convey its visual drama. It is built up of horizontally stretched cuboids, stacked up and positioned perpendicularly to each other, all with overhanging flat roofs. The roof of the booking hall projects over the main entrance to offer shelter, a design feature which would be used later at Coventry. The only vertically emphasised elements are the three lift towers, which provide visual contrast to the rest of the station’s form.
The double height booking hall is flanked by two long, single storey wings. On the west, one of these is a huge cycle store, while on the east, the other wing houses essential station/staff facilities. Unfortunately, the later addition of a dismal bus shelter in front of the station makes it difficult to properly appreciate the face the station presents to the outside world in quite the same way as when it was built and cheapens the station by association. Numerous poster cases attached to the exterior walls of the wings also detract from the simplicity of their original appearance.
The modern Harlow Town station sign over the main entrance doors, visible in the photo above, adds little to the station’s public face, and interrupts the window line. Much more impressive are the engraved station name signs flanking the entrance and the superb doors, both original features. Various modern warning stickers and signs have been attached to the frontage, which detract from the station’s appearance. The modern railway industry finds the temptation to continually add new warning signs to things almost irresistible, though it leads to so much visual clutter that what could be important messages disappear into the mass of clashing signage.
The cycle storage room, to the left of the main entrance, hasn’t fallen victim to sticky notice posting in the same way, and looks all the better for it. A projecting section of roof shelters the entrance, in a similar manner to the main entrance but on a smaller scale. Its underside is fitted with slatted varnished wood.
Inside the booking hall, the modern railway has obscured the clarity of the original design. The original station clock is still there, but now fights for attention with more recently installed features; an electronic display screen alongside and a coffee shop below. Don’t even get me started on the crudely applied run of steel trunking which has been stuck carelessly to the wall behind the clock.
Meanwhile, a gateline, shoehorned awkwardly into the booking hall (not visible in the photo below) adds to the congestion of what was originally a civilised and uncluttered space. However, look up, and something of the airy feel of the original design is still to be found. The staircase winds its way up to the footbridge, between walls decorated either with shimmering pale turquoise or glossy black mosaic tiling. Again, the ceiling is made of slatted varnished wood.
Looking back and down from the top of the staircase shows how Harlow Town station acted (and still acts) as a gateway to the new town of Harlow itself, with views through upper windows over the canopy which protects the entrance doors. The brass handrail on the stairs is original, the bright yellow is not.
Harlow Town’s footbridge is particularly spacious compared to traditional railway footbridges, being not just a means of access to and between the station’s platforms, but also containing passenger waiting facilities and toilets. This reflects what was an ongoing interest on the part of British Railways’ architects in using footbridges as places for passengers to wait, rather than just pass through on their way to or from trains. A year before Harlow Town station was built, the reconstruction of Banbury station had pioneered this approach, which was inspired by motorway service stations being built at the same time. Today, the sense of space remains at Harlow Town, though most of the fittings are modern; I am not sure the flooring is the blue quarry tiles described as those originally incorporated in the station; these look more grey to me.
Stairs lead down to the platforms under stepped roofs. Although thoroughly in keeping with Harlow Town’s aesthetic, allowing horizontal roofs to be used rather than the angled ones more common on station footbridge stairways, the approach has venerable antecedents. An almost identical design approach was used at Welch and Lander’s 1930s Park Royal station on London Underground’s Piccadilly line, though the glazing on Harlow Town’s stairways includes delightful squared-off bay windows under the ends of the roofs. Sadly, a couple of the windows on the stairway were broken and boarded over on the day I visited.
The arrangement of footbridge, stepped stairway roofs and platform canopy is particularly impressive here, finished off by the lift tower behind. With their shuttered concrete finishes, the three lift towers bring a touch of Brutalism to the station.
On the platforms themselves, the canopies are relatively short and supported on twin steel beams running their length. The twin beams are supported by slender square-section columns, giving a pleasingly uncluttered feel to the space below. Unfortunately, the loss of the original waiting shelters to the eastern ends of the canopies reduces the opportunities for passengers to wait in sheltered areas. Modern Macemain+Amstad shelters to the western end of the platforms don’t really compensate for what has been lost, and with curved roofs their aesthetic completely fails to match that of the rest of the station.
The green roof fascias have only recently been restored to their original colour, after many years in white; a restoration funded by the Railway Heritage Trust and the recipient of a Heritage Railway Award in 2020, befitting what is now a Grade II listed building (it was designated in 1995). Originally, the station had dark (possibly black, though I have yet to find a definitive statement) window frames, which suited the building better than the current white frames. Meanwhile, although the bricks used on the station exterior are described as “light grey flint lime brick” (Lawrence, 2018), they definitely seem to me to have taken on a slightly pinkish tinge (though colour perception is notoriously subjective, and you may disagree). The unusual dark pointing used on the brickwork remains a quite striking contrast with the pale bricks, however. Added to the brown wood ceilings, and the turquoise and black mosaic tiling on internal walls, Harlow Town is unexpectedly a riot of colour and all the more enjoyable for it.
Having reached the platforms of one of the Eastern Region’s great Mid-Century Modern stations, the only question I had to consider was where to go next, and what could possibly follow a visit to Harlow Town. So I did what any sensible person would do, and took the train to Broxbourne.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Lawrence, David (2018): British Rail Architecture 1948-97. Crecy: Manchester
Leboff, David (1994): London Underground Stations. Ian Allan: Shepperton
…and anything linked to in the text above.
How to Find Harlow Town Station
Trains run regularly run from London Liverpool Street station and you can see where you trying to get to on The Beauty of Transport‘s map.