The hordes of people who cross the Bridge Approach from Primrose Hill to Chalk Farm tube station would scarcely notice it these days. Yet behind an anonymous façade at the end of the bridge is an old entrance that until recently led almost magically to one of the most charming and unspoilt small Victorian railway stations in London.
Brutally and secretly demolished by Network Rail one night six years ago, this was the old Primrose Hill station, that once served passengers on what is now the London Overground. Although officially closed in 1992, it had remained mostly intact and I used to love glimpsing this charming time-warp from trains speeding north from Euston.
And then suddenly it was gone – its delicate cast-iron Victorian tracery smashed and shattered – discarded in tragic piles on the platform. The reasons given by Network Rail were “health and safety” and that it had become an “eyesore” posing a risk to passing trains. Never mind that it would be an eyesore no longer if it were reopened, restoring some architectural pleasure, as well as a transport artery for the local community – how much easier to sweep it away in the obsession with “modernisation”.
The fate of Primrose Hill station sums up the theme of my new book The Trains We Have Lost: Sixteen Excursions into the Lost Delights of Britain’s Railways – in which I mourn some of the pleasures of rail travel that have disappeared from our lives. Here are lines prematurely axed, often with a gripping and colourful tale to tell, as well as marvels of locomotive engineering prematurely sent to the scrapyard, and architecturally magnificent stations felled by the wrecker’s ball. Then there are the lost delights of train travel, such as haute cuisine in the dining car, the grand expresses with their evocative names, and continental boat trains to romantic far-off places.
Such pleasures have all but vanished in our modern homogenised era of train travel to be replaced by a mindset that makes rail travel today often such a miserable experience. For many of today’s train travellers “faster, more frequent and better” is too often a euphemism, in corporate railwayspeak, for “worse”. It is sometimes tempting to wonder if, deep in every railway operations HQ, there is a department whose sole job is to think up ideas to diminish the experience of passengers (or “passenger experience” if you go along with the jargon.)
Here are seats that don’t line up with the windows, garish plasticky train interiors, an incomprehensible fares system, ticket collectors who assume everyone is a criminal, a cacophony of endless announcements about “the next station stop” and – and of course, the extinction of many of the things that made rail travel once joyous – restaurant cars, obliging porters, staffed stations, waiting rooms with blazing fires, a comfy compartment you could snuggle in, luggage in advance. And now we have the prospect of HS2 – where speed rather than the quality of the journey seems to be the only thing that matters.
At their peril do the authorities ignore the enduring love that the British – the nation that invented the railways – have for their trains. Millions follow Michael Portillo, ubiquitous on our living room TVs, brandishing his Bradshaw and seemingly endlessly roaming the rails on his Great British Railway Journeys. Pete Waterman is there, too, rejoicing in in the greasy world of the steam engine, while Dan Snow adds the gloss of the celebrity historian.
In this spirit I chose for my book 16 icons, through which I unashamedly celebrate the lost delights of Britain’s railways. It’s not just about old engines, nor is it a critique of Richard Beeching, whose 1963 report led to the slashing of the national rail network in the 1960s. Beeching just reflected the political mood of the times
Rather, in the “excursions” of my title I undertook an odyssey, which took me from Preston to Paris, and Baker Street to Bangkok to celebrate the best of what has gone from our railways. I’m entirely with the spirit of the railway historian who wrote that “the words on an Ordnance Map ‘Track of Old Railway’ have the power deeply to move me, and when I discover the scar itself I have to discover where it is going and what is left of its furniture.”
And so I walked over the crumbling viaducts of what was once the highest railway in England, I uncovered the farthest outpost of the London Tube buried in the undergrowth of the Buckinghamshire countryside. I rode today’s fastest train from Scotland to London to summon up the great days of the Anglo-Scottish expresses. I trudged through the back streets of provincial towns to stand on the sites of old stations, where the hopes and dreams of Victorian visionaries were raised and dashed.
I relived the world of Rowland Emmet and William Heath Robinson on the tracks of some of the most eccentric railways ever built. I sat in a car park by the sea where the laughter once echoed from happy excursionists piling off trains from Lancashire and Yorkshire factories and mills. I sat down and wept by the remains of Primrose Hill station.
In all these journeys I’ve tried to re-inhabit the essential character of the railways as they once were and to distil the romance that has been irretrievably lost. For me, the essential flavour of the railways of the past is often best divined standing on some overgrown embankment, or beneath the ruins of an ivy covered viaduct or amid the last fragments of some grand city terminus such as the old Euston, gently reconstructing the humanity and the grandeur that was once there.
If you wait long enough between somewhere and nowhere, the past can often return with surprising clarity. Even a high-speed journey to Paris on the Eurostar helped resurrect for me the ghosts of the glamorous days of the old boat trains. Likewise a delicious lunch on one of today’s weekday trains to the West Country was a journey back, too, to the great days of the splendid restaurant cars of the Golden Age.
Yet beyond the nostalgia, there are lessons we can learn today – just as we discovered too late the disaster of demolishing the old Euston in the 1960s and replacing it with the hideous concrete box that blights our area today.
Will our obsession with High Speed rail be another such wrong turning? In my book I write a chapter about Britain’s most beautiful scenic main line over the “Waverley Route” from Carlisle to Edinburgh. It was closed in the 1960s, but has been lovingly rebuilt over 30 miles. It will reopen this autumn as the first new main line to be built in Britain for more than a century – and at a fraction of the cost of HS2.
There are many more such closed lines and stations around Britain that could be reopened economically with huge benefit to local communities. Which would you choose? A new local train service from a rebuilt and reopened Primrose Hill? Or another passing by in a blur at 200mph?
The Trains Now Departed: Sixteen Excursions into the Lost Delights of Britain’s Railways by Michael Williams is published by Preface, a division of Penguin Random House, price £20. It is in stock in good local bookshops, such as Primrose Hill Books in Regents Park Road, and the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town Road. It’s also at Amazon http://amzn.to/1xKrjzz
© 2015 Michael Williams all rights reserved.