Should we ever meet the man, we would love to tell him of our days learning the trade of journalism as a junior reporter on the Kentish Times” series of newspapers in south-east London and north-west Kent in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This involved a spell at the Swanley office, which was the most rural and remote of the dozen or so that the ”Kentish Times” operated, and once or twice a week meant covering parish council meetings in villages such as Farningham and Eynsford.

Not being able to afford a car, this involved a couple of hours hanging about in a pub from 5pm before the short but infrequent train ride there for the 8pm meeting. And depending on how much the councillors liked the sound of their own voices that night, the lengthier trip home to Orpington via Swanley would begin either on the (about) 10pm or 11pm train from one of the villages’ small railway stations – particularly tough in a freezing cold winter if the meeting finished at 10.10, say, leaving a wait of nearly an hour on the gloomy, probably empty platform. (Admittedly, some of the time could be, and was, spent downing yet more beer in a village pub, but the junior reporter wage only stretched so far). Were there really hissing gas lamps on those funereal late-night deserted village platforms in the late 1960s, or is the memory playing tricks and it is just a bad dream? No, they surely were really there.

Sadly, we would have to confess to Jenkins that in those immature late-teen and early 20s days we did not take a great deal of notice of the aesthetics of the village railway stations. They do not appear in his book. This is a lovely lavishly illustrated volume of the coffee-table” variety, albeit nice and compact. ”Beautiful,” our lady friend says upon being shown it, giving an appreciative stroke of the dust jacket. “Wonderful,” she says, flipping through the pages of sharp and bright photography, and the easy-on-the-eye layout. “Beautiful,” again.

Jenkins opens up with a short history of Britain’s railways, which he says were born in virtually their present form over an astonishingly short period, from the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s. Remember those early engines “Locomotion” of 1825 and “Rocket” of 1830? Their immediate precursors were the tramways of the 18th century. Railways rendered obsolete a pattern of human movement that had been dictated by the speed of the horse since the dawn of history, the writer recounts.

There was what Jenkins calls “the Mania”, a stock market bubble of 1843-7, which fuelled a railway-building boom and created the often chaotic pattern of lines and stations that we still see today. It was a time when compulsory purchase of property over-rode the once-powerful landed interest in the rush to build new lines Trains were soon running at 30mph, then the Great Western and other lines rapidly reached 60mph. The stagecoach was dead.

Much later came “the Devastation”, the term Jenkins uses for the “modernisation” period, roughly 1960-80, when the country’s railways were drastically reduced in scale, lines closed and stations demolished. There were some notable and painful losses, the most infamous of which appears to have been the old Euston, in London, with its sweeping staircases in the Great Hall and a Doric arch.

Richard Beeching, as chairman of British Railways, produced his report “The Reshaping of British Railways”, commonly referred to as "The Beeching Report", in the 1960s, which led to far-reaching changes in the railway network, popularly known as the Beeching Axe. Just over 4000 route miles were removed on cost and efficiency grounds, leaving Britain with 13,721 miles (22,082 km) of railway lines in 1966. A further 2000 miles (3200 km) were lost by the end of the 1960s.

Beeching closed more than 2300 stations but many were apparently of small or minor architectural interest. Fortunately, with more than 2500 surviving stations, there is no shortage for Jenkins from which to select his best 100.

These are gathered in regional groupings, which would be handy in the case of seeking out some of the stations to take a proper look; after all, it all appears so interesting and attractive. And so we are introduced, for example, to the Palladian-style Huddersfield station with its six Corinthian columns, and the astonishing Bristol Meads with its crenellated walls and turrets, the latter standing with York and Newcastle in the “trinity of great English provincial stations”.

Or try Boxhill & Westhumble, a marriage of French chateau with elements of Venetian gothic and Swiss chalet, the favourite styles of architect Charles Driver, said by Jenkins to be a master at adapting any and every style to a building’s setting. Or Tynemouth, where the concourse, designed to marshal crowds of holidaymakers, is a “winter garden wonderland, a feast of Victorian ironwork: One hundred columns march into the distance beneath a rolling canopy of ridge-and-furrow roofs”.

Amid these and 90-plus other glories are the occasional disappointment, such as at Edinburgh Waverley, designed by James Bell in the 1890s, where Jenkins relates how British Rail ripped out the free-standing wooden ticket office and replaced it with “successively, a travel centre, a shopping kiosk and then a Costa Coffee stall”, which was in turn removed, leaving nothing but rows of metal seats.

Jenkins was appointed to the British Railways Board in 1980 and was shocked by the disdain for heritage shown by a continued programme of station demolition. He tried to stop the destruction of the Derby Tri-Junct, a station linking three lines, but was told by the chairman, Sir Peter Parker, that it was too late.

Victorian buildings were out of fashion and Jenkins, appointed head of British Rail’s environment panel, went around the country “visiting distressed railway heritage, if only to draw attention to its plight”. However, he persuaded Sir Peter to fund a Railway Heritage Trust with £1 million per year and as a result apparently no major stations were subsequently lost, apart from Newmarket.

Still, Jenkins celebrates the now rather than bemoans the past, and sees the stations as keepers of a national social history. He champions the pioneers such as the Stephensons, engineers such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and the many visionary architects and competing companies that created this undersung facet of Britain.

The photography is excellent and some historical pictures are reproduced such as William Powell Frith’s celebrated painting of Paddington station, one of the London termini, in 1862. There is a bibliography and index but it must be said that the glossary could have gone into greater detail, to explain some more of the architectural terms.

Loading Conversation

The news that made headlines

The Brief History of the Week

Geschrieben von BT

Presenting in one concise package the week’s most important and fascinating national stories,…

ComiX Coffee in District V

Inmates running the asylum?

Geschrieben von Attila Leitner

Briton Ben Innes became the very definition of cool on Tuesday. In case you missed this, the…

Protests, no apologies as government-teachers dispute widens

Fight of the roundtables

Geschrieben von BT

The civil public education platform representing the teachers’ movement, which calls itself an…