It takes a little under 10 minutes to travel between Harlow Town and Broxbourne stations by train. That gave me just enough time to reflect on the remarkable proximity of two of the best Mid-Century Modern stations on the British railway network, when I travelled between them a few weeks ago. As Historic England says, “Under H H Powell [Regional Architect Eastern Region from the 1950s to the 1960s], with his principal assistant Roger Walters, the Eastern Region Architect’s Department was the most creative branch of British Railways, designing a number of powerful modern stations in conjunction with the Region’s electrification.” There are good examples of contemporary architecture on the other Regions, but Eastern has the best overall collection, which I think is what Historic England is referring to here.
Powell oversaw not just large station rebuilds, but new facilities at smaller stations such as concrete footbridges notable for their riser-less open stairs, and several new signal boxes. Here, for instance, is Witham signal box, now disused but still an impressive building, the oversailing roof providing effective shading for signallers in the control room below.
As I observed when the train pulled in to Broxbourne station, the signal box located at the station is another example of Eastern Region’s interest in Mid-Century Modernism.
Broxbourne station itself opened mere months after that at Harlow Town, in November 1960. Job architect John Ward, main designer Peter Reyniers and Stephen Adutt worked, with others, on the design. Although just months younger than Harlow Town, its architecture is an even more evolved interpretation of the Mid-Century Modern style than its ever-so-slightly older near-neighbour. Doing away with the overhanging roofs and colourful applied decoration of Harlow Town, Broxbourne’s stripped-back design is laser focussed on the volumes of the station. The whole of the station is on show, right from the start. Having left the station and walked up the embankment of the New River, which runs alongside the railway here, it was immediately apparent that this design approach makes the station extremely legible. Anyone arriving at the station can see exactly how they will make their way through it and onto their train.
At the entrance to the station is a single storey building containing a ticket hall and offices for station staff. As is ever the way of the railway network, over the years it has gained considerable clutter which detracts from the simplicity of the original design; poster frames, wall-mounted rubbish bins, air conditioning units, burglar alarms, and a station name sign just over the main entrance doors which breaks up the line of the concrete slab roof of the building. Extruded lettering, like that on the exterior of the footbridge above, would have worked a lot better, if needed at all. Compared to its original appearance, additional windows have been made in this building, and a beautifully proportioned full height window has been lost, replaced by a small window and door – the area of paler brickwork can be seen in the photo above.
Seventeen miles from London Liverpool Street station, the station’s walls of yellow stock brick are a reminder that the capital is not too far away. Reinforced concrete slabs which form the roof and floor of the footbridge are on show to the outside world here; there are no fascias covering up structural elements. Despite the footbridge’s bulk, cantilvered supports springing from the bottom of the lift towers lighten its appearance and make it seem as though it is floating above the platforms.
The three lift towers are finished in purple brick rather than the yellow brick of the rest of the station (at least that is what all the books say; the bricks look dark brown to me, colour perception being rather an individual experience). Positioned at uneven intervals across the footbridge, the lift towers extend above the footbridge where they house the lift machinery, providing vertical counterpoints to the horizontal forms of the ticket hall and footbridge.
At the rear of the ticket hall is the station’s most dramatic feature from a passenger’s point of view, a double height stairwell with a fully glazed front wall. Unlike Harlow Town, which is extensively glazed, Broxbourne makes much greater use of solid walls, so this area is startling by contrast. It contains a triple-flight open well staircase with wooden handrails, all fully on view to passengers, none of it hidden behind walls or screens. Sadly, the original skylights in the varnished timber ceiling have been blocked up, cutting down the amount of natural daylight available. New coving light fittings have been fitted, linked by surface mounted galvanised steel trunking, plonked insensitively across the ceiling and walls of the stairwell. Additional handrails are fitted to meet, I assume, current standards for balustrade heights, but add extra visual clutter. So do CCTV cameras, “Warning – Mind your head” signs, and real-time train information screens dangling from the underside of the staircase’s intermediate landings.
It is quite something to experience, and genuinely not one to try if you have a fear of heights as you can look all the way down from the top to the bottom, and with those huge glass windows ahead it can feel very exposed.
The footbridge is another example of British Railways’ then-interest in integrating footbridges into the overall design of stations, and placing passenger facilities into them. Narrow where toilet facilities take up some of the footbridge’s width, it opens out into a much wider waiting area located over the platforms.
Although the footbridge has relatively little glazing compared to the example at Harlow Town, I personally prefer it. The preponderance of exposed brick, and the use of wood on the ceiling and wall-mounted rails, leads to this being an extremely calm space; possibly something to do with the sound absorbing qualities of both. Although it’s a niche reference, it has exactly the same feeling as the staircase at the back of Aston University’s lately much-disfigured library, where I used to sit on the stairs and read, this location being far preferable to the actual reading desks on the main floors.
Leading down from the footbridge to the platforms are stairwells which over most of their length feature fully glazed walls – referencing the fully glazed front of the stairwell behind the ticket hall, and providing a well considered bookend experience to a passenger’s route through the station building. Moulded wooden handrails are seen even better in these platform stairwells than they are in the ticket office stairwell, mostly because they have not gained the additional yellow handrails above. I will gloss over the galvanised steel trunking added onto the ceiling.
Externally, these stairwells mark the first appearance of fascias at roof level, and they extend down along the platform canopies. Like Harlow Town’s, they were white until a few years ago but have recently been finished in a similar green colour.
It is worth, I think, repeating Historic England’s justification for the Grade II listing Broxbourne station received in 2009. “Included as one of the most powerfully composed stations of the period, a development of the plan already adopted by the same Regional architects for Harlow station using a more forceful profile and simpler contrast of masses and materials. Critically well-received at the time of completion, this is one of a very small number of post-war railway stations of clear architectural distinction.”
It really is. A stylish, legible, functional station, Broxbourne is a sometimes overlooked design classic. A must-visit for fans of Mid-Century Modernism, I suspect most of its passengers will give little consideration to its architecture at all. That is perhaps its greatest achievement. So legible and straightforward is the station to use that its architecture never once gets in the way of an effective passenger experience. ■
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Lawrence, David (2018): British Rail Architecture 1948-97. Crecy: Manchester
…and anything linked to in the text above.
How to find Broxbourne station
Get there by train from London’s Liverpool Street station. Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map