Book Review: Cathedrals of Steam by Christian Wolmar

Book Review: Cathedrals of Steam by Christian Wolmar

There are 12 main line rail terminuses today in London – 14 if Moorgate and Blackfriars are counted – which compares to nine in Moscow, seven in Paris, five each in Beijing and Mumbai. The reason for London’s unusual multiplicity is a key question in Christian Wolmar’s fascinating and discursive book, Cathedrals of Steam.

Across a 38-year timespan in the mid-19th century railway companies, competing intensely to get as close as possible to the Central London market jackpot, spent eye-wateringly on marvellous experiments in engineering, channelled by an 1846 Royal Commission which ruled out development in the West End and the City (at least until the 1860s). By chance or mis-step more than any grand vision, a constellation emerged that transformed the lives of Londoners and forms the capital’s basic route map to this day.

Wolmar tells the story of development station by station with common themes emerging – temporary stops a little further out of town established first, then bunfights over the successful terminus locations, with a station split in two between operators in the case of London Bridge and Victoria, or at Euston, King’s Cross and St Pancras, rivals engaging in spectacular one-upmanship.

In the earliest phase, northern railway company owners sought to stamp their mark on the capital, most blatantly in the massive stonework of Euston Arch. Station designers had momentous choices to make, for example over whether to send the line over or under the Regent’s Canal, and there were sagas around buying up land for tracks (usually harder on the north side of the river).

Legislation on providing cheap early morning workers’ trains and how it was interpreted had a lasting impact on the character of different parts of north and north-east London. The narrative also brings in goods yards, London station hotels and social context: the rise of the tacky railway novel; the tradition of meeting under the Waterloo clock.

After assessing latecomer Marylebone’s failure to outdo established terminuses, the book whips through 20th century decline and revival and ends sentimentally by imagining Sir John Betjeman’s reaction to London’s mainline stations today. Wolmar rues the absence from London of more north-south links or a German-style central station – terminuses can handle two or three trains an hour per platform and through-stations 24 an hour, he points out.

He also echoes criticisms of them being built, until recent times, in backward-looking architectural styles – Italianate and neo-Gothic “cathedrals” – at the expense of efficiency and convenience. But he is upbeat about recent regenerations and this is ultimately a generous-spirited survey of London terminuses in all their maddening imperfections.

Readers are in safe hands with a rail expert who deftly weaves in the history of the Underground and adds colour with snapshots of his memories as a young train buff (this reviewer was reminded of the cab road that still took passengers directly onto the platform, probably at Paddington, when he was tiny).

Wolmar grounds the book in the literature on London stations – notably Alan A Jackson’s 1969 survey London Termini – with many glorious quotations as he carries the story forward with his own breezy journalistic aplomb (the 19th century Great Northern Company’s “John Lewis-style ‘never knowingly undersold’ deal”, the younger Wolmar looking out at 1980s St Pancras, with “old curtains fluttering in the wing, and pigeons happily roosting in the former servants’ quarters”).

I was drawn by the details – 20,000 cows reportedly kept in London and its immediate environs in the 1850s, and so many bricks used for  London Bridge viaduct in the 1830s that it led to shortages for housebuilding – and by fascinating digressions such as the history of the Necropolis Company and its train services to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.

As Covid continues to play havoc with TfL finances and commuting patterns, Crossrail 2 funding is scrapped and we await both Crossrail 1 and the final shape of HS2, who knows whether Wolmar’s closing optimism about London’s terminuses standing proud in a century’s time is justified. It certainly seems a good moment to take stock of the amazing heritage they represent, and consider when we might create infrastructure with such restless passion again.

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Categories: Books, Culture

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