Book Review: John Minnis; Britain’s Lost Railways – A Commemoration of our Finest Railway Architecture

John Minnis is an architectural historian with English Heritage. He has a particular interest in transport buildings and has published widely on both rail and road architecture.

A friend gave me his book, ‘Britain’s Lost Railways’, [1] for Christmas in 2018. It is February 2019 as I write, and I have just completed reading this book. It is a striking photographic record of how the closure of railway lines, predominantly, but not exclusively, as a result of the Beeching report, and a search for modernity decimated our heritage in and around our once all pervasive railway network during the 20th Century. The cover price is £25.00 but I have seen new copies on sale on internet sites for £16.00 or so.

The author provides examples from across the rail network of buildings that have been lost. In many cases, not just individual buildings but whole station sites have been lost, sites which had an integrity all their own and which probably needed to be preserved as complete sites. The outcome, in some cases, seems to be the preservation of an individual building but not its context and as a result the preserved building is diminished by the resulting changes around it.

This book is primarily a pictorial record of what has been lost but not a detailed and comprehensive survey of those losses. It is a memorial to what has been lost! It seems to me to evoke memories of the past, without being over sentimental. Minnis says that the book is probably aimed more at those whose interest is in architecture rather than railways. While that is true, it seems to me that there is every good reason for those who are excited by railways and railway history to understand the environment though which they run, and particularly the railway infrastructure that surrounds the locos, carriages and wagons that already hole their interest.

The process of destruction has been going on since the dawn of the railway age and some buildings are included in this book that were demolished well over 100 years ago, in some cases they are illustrated by the only photographs known to exist. Minnis has a specific focus on the main line companies rather than minor or narrow gauge railways, although there are some examples of the latter included in the book.

In some cases, the stations or lines remain open, in others, the lines themselves are closed, but the one thing that unites all the buildings and structures in Minnis’ book is that they have gone and all we have left is a photographic image. Perhaps, their disappearance was inevitable. Redundancy and changes in the way in which we live our lives led to considerable destruction of obsolete railway buildings and structures. But, in the 1960s and early 70s, the rate of destruction in Great Britain was really high, perhaps higher than anywhere else in the world.

Increased understanding of railway architecture, coupled with a growing awareness of the quality of Victorian buildings, has led to railway architecture being appreciated to a much greater extent. Minnis notes that from the end of the 1960s the widespread demolition of railway infrastructure began to be constrained by professional, and to some extent, public opinion. But it is still true that the second half of the 20th Century saw the loss of swathes of Victorian infrastructure. “In large areas of the country, the Victorian railway infrastructure, at least in terms of buildings, has effectively vanished. Throughout much of urban Lancashire and Yorkshire, on Tyneside and Teesside, and in South Wales, there are no more than a handful of Victorian stations left through a combination of an official policy of demolition in the late 1960s and ’70s and the effects of the inevitable vandalism that follows in the wake of de-staffing stations. In the south, the position is rather happier as more stations remain open and staffed for at least part of the day.” [2]

Minnis asserts that the buildings lost include “a range of work of extraordinary quality. Wholesale demolition of Victorian buildings of all types was only to be expected in the 1950s and 1960s when they were generally unappreciated, but much destruction of railway structures has taken place within the last forty years. The small wayside stations, both urban and rural, have been at the heart of the destruction.” [3]

This book was first published in 2011. © Quarto Publishing PLC 2011, 2014, 2017 Text Copyright © John Minnis 2011, 2014, 2017.

References

  1. John Minnis; Britain’s Lost Railways – A Commemoration of our Finest Railway Architecture; Quarto Publishing PLC, London, 2011.
  2. Ibid., p13-16.
  3. Ibid., p16.

 

 

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