Sometimes you seek out transport architecture, at others transport architecture is thrust upon you, just as it was when I accidentally ended up in Workington a couple of months ago. With poor weather forecast on one of the days of a trip to the Lake District, I spent the day hopping buses on what turned into grand tour, and caught Stagecoach’s X4/X5 service from Penrith to Workington.
I knew (unforgiveably, as it turned out) absolutely nothing about Workington bus station and its role in transport history until I got there. Workington bus station, you see, was Britain’s first purpose-built covered bus station, and is probably now one of Britain’s very few surviving examples. Here it is.
While there are still covered bus stations in operation in Britain, these are usually of a much later vintage than Workington’s, built from the 1960s onwards and generally the type you find on the ground floor of multi-storey car parks. They are not, in general, very nice facilities to use. Workington bus station, on the other hand, was built in 1926 by Cumberland Motor Services and is a rather different and more dignified proposition, built specifically for the purposes of serving buses rather than being compromised by the provision of multiple decks-worth of car parking above.
It is a drive-through design, with entrances/exits on Murray Road and Vulcan’s Lane. Both frontages are near identical in appearance, with their most notable feature placed above the vehicle entrances; a large blind arch with keystone above (glazed initially but bricked in fairly early on in the bus station’s history), flanked by keyed blind oculi. At ground level, the pedestrian entrances either side of the vehicle entrance have fanlights above, with keystones and rusticated voussoirs. Separating the vehicle entrance from the pedestrian entrances are two rusticated pilasters which extend above the roofline. The main difference between the two frontages is that the one on Murray Road extends to a single story ticket/enquiry office on the left; this has been remodelled to a more modern appearance.
The frontages act to screen the ends of the pitched roof behind. Translucent panels in the roof allow light through to the bus station’s interior, and its height helps fumes to (mostly) dissipate. One can only imagine what the noise levels and air quality were like when the bus station was new, in the days before Euro engine standards cleaned up bus exhausts. Today, in modern purpose-built bus stations – not the collections of small bus shelters in close proximity that sometimes pretend to the name – the covered element comprises only the passenger waiting area, offices, retail (sometimes), toilets (we hope so) and other related facilities. Vehicles and their turning areas are left on the outside which keeps noise and exhaust emissions away from passengers. Maybe when all buses are fully electric, fully covered bus station designs might be a interesting proposition to revisit. But I digress.
What I particularly like about Workington bus station is its exterior appearance. Like the very early railway stations and airport terminals having no clear idea what they were ‘supposed’ to look like, neither does Workington bus station. It’s not a building which has a particular public transport appearance. Rather, it is more reminiscent of the architecture of early cinemas. Here, for instance, is the former Royston Palace Cinema of 1914.
And here is Sleaford Picturedrome (as was) of 1920, now a restaurant.
Cinemas were an apposite archictectural precedent on which Workington bus station’s architect H Oldfield might have drawn. A bus station is a gateway to physical escape; cinemas meanwhile were escapes for the mind. Originally, Workington bus station had striking “Bus Station” lettering on its frontage, further enhancing its similarity to an early cinema. The current signage, in Stagecoach’s last-but-one corporate style (I think, but happy to be corrected) is less characterful.
There seems to be a welcome degree of community affection for and interest in Workington bus station and its place in transport history. Workington Transport Heritage Trust celebrates this pioneering building with a plaque by the entrance. Perhaps surprisingly given its place in transport history, the bus station has yet to gain a National Transport Trust red wheel plaque, and nor is it listed by Historic England (apparently it has been too greatly altered). Internally, children from Victoria Junior School in Workington have designed a series of murals depicting places which can be reached by bus, working with an artist to turn their ideas into images. The murals, funded by Stagecoach Cumbria & North Lancashire, were unveiled in November 2019, in an exercise similar to those far more commonly found on the rail network in the shape of the community rail movement than on the bus network.
There used to be a number of covered bus stations around the country dating from the inter-war period, and I have dim memories of using at least one or two of them decades ago. Most if not all of them seem now to have been demolished, including Worswick Street bus station in Newcastle which hung on until as late as 2021 after being closed in 1996. You can track its decline over various Google Street Views; decaying gently in 2009, somehow still lingering on in 2020 before being finally obliterated in 2021. You can see it in its bustling prime on this webpage.
Not too far from Workington itself, Whitehaven’s modernist bus station has been redeveloped as a cafe-bar and a co-working hub for start-up companies. It is at least still standing, though that town’s bus passengers now have to make do with on-street bus stops rather than a single bus station with waiting facilities, where they could easily change between bus routes if necessary. Regular readers will know of The Beauty of Transport‘s sadness at the closure of many town centre bus stations (Taunton’s most recently), and their frequent substitution with replacements of manifestly lower quality.
How lovely then, to find that Workington’s pioneering bus station, unlike the buses which zip in and out of it throughout the day as they serve the populace of West Cumbria, appears to be going nowhere. ■
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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How to find Workington bus station
Get there by bus! For its exact location, click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map