Catching the train to work each day can be grim, and it’s understandable if this grimness attaches itself to the station where we do the catching, reducing it to merely a site where we must wait and endure. This is a pity, because railway stations are intriguing places, with a special place in London’s townscape.
Consider Penge East railway station. Consider it not as a place to be endured on the way to Brixton or Victoria, but as an example of mid-Victorian railway design.
The station house has a domestic feel, with its homely brickwork and pitched roof. Gently asymmetrical, a short central range with wings at each end, but the wings don’t match: that on the left is taller, with gable-end windows set deliberately at odds with each other, and the chimneys are set differently.
Multi-coloured brickwork, yellow stock with recessed horizontal bands, red brick ornamentation under the eaves, and red and black rows defining the bluntly-pointed arches over doors and windows. The arches have cream base-stones, and cream key-stones with neat little moulded trefoil logos.
It’s a nice jumble. The multi-coloured and textured brick harks back to Tudor and Renaissance styles. The pointed-arch doors and windows are vaguely Gothic. The deliberate asymmetry was a very Victorian thing, seen in many churches. If we need a label, then I think ‘Railway Picturesque’ hits the mark.
‘Picturesque’ is usually taken to refer to certain whimsical buildings of the eighteenth century, but architectural historian Carrol V. Meeks maintained that it was a much broader and longer-lasting phenomenon. In his 1957 study of railway architecture ** he argued that the picturesque was the railway industry’s dominant style in the nineteenth century. It was characterised by asymmetry, variety, irregularity, and for its detail and ornamentation it happily raided various architectural traditions. The aim was to facilitate the business of the railway while achieving a variety of pleasing, perhaps mildly surprising, visual effects. Penge East railway station is a modest illustration of this.
But Penge East was not a standalone design. It was one of several stations built by the London Chatham & Dover Railway Company (LCDR) in 1862 and 1863 along its new commuter line.
Since the 1850s the South Eastern Railway Company had operated a line from Bromley and Beckenham to London Bridge. The LCDR aimed to compete by building a line from Beckenham to a new junction at Herne Hill, from where travellers could go on either to Victoria, or to St. Paul’s (the original name for the station we know as Blackfriars). Herne Hill was therefore the lynchpin in the project.
The LCDR’s chief engineer was Joseph Cubitt, nephew of Thomas Cubitt, Victorian London’s greatest builder, responsible for Bloomsbury, Belgravia and Clapham Park; and of Lewis Cubitt who designed Kings Cross Station. But Joseph Cubitt was an engineer rather than an architect, and the job of designing the railway stations along his new line fell to a young man called John Taylor. Taylor had a long career and eventually became Sir John Taylor, a safe pair of architectural hands, responsible among other things for the main staircase in the National Gallery. But in 1862 he was just starting out, and his design at Herne Hill station was rather impressive.
The station house at Herne Hill is much grander than Penge East, but it has the same asymmetry, the same yellow brick and recessed horizontal bands, the same red brick ornamentation under the eaves, the same pointed red and black arches, and the same trefoil mouldings on cream key-stones. Herne Hill was the prototype for all these design elements. It set the style which was faithfully reproduced a year later at Penge East, and which informed the subtly different, slightly Byzantine variant at West Dulwich.
Among this little group of stations Herne Hill stands out by virtue of its priority, and its size, and – crucially – by virtue of its tower.
Square and chunky, with five high arched false window-recesses on each face, and a shallow pitched roof, the Herne Hill tower has an Italianate look – or would have if it were not for the very English chimney stack sticking out of its top. We might be forgiven for assuming that the tower was built purely for visual effect, but in fact it contained and concealed the station’s water-tank, which makes it quintessential Railway Picturesque: mundane industrial function masked by form; a form which is eclectic, arresting, and just off-balance.
None of this prevents the daily commute from being grim. But at least it’s picturesquely grim.
** Carroll V. Meeks, The Railway Station: An Architectural History, London, Architectural Press, 1957.