Waterloo, couldn’t find my train if I wanted to

And now, in our continuing tale of London’s termini, I bring you – Waterloo!

You can’t help but feel a bit sorry for Waterloo. While it’s not exactly the poor relation of the big London stations (at least it hasn’t closed down – I’m looking at you, Broad Street), it seems to have suffered from a terrible lack of planning. For a start, it doesn’t have a fantastic frontage. Kings Cross has its Italianate facade, St Pancras has the Gothic Midland Hotel, Euston had its Doric Arch before some idiot thought the “really big bus shelter” style would be an improvement.

What about Waterloo? Well, it does have a frontage, except they stuck it on the side. It takes the form of the Victory Arch, a memorial to company employees killed in the Great War, seen above. This would be a magnificent prospect, were it not for the fact that it’s hidden from the main road by the viaduct to Waterloo East and an ugly, shabby-looking taxi rank.

To be fair to the station’s builders, Waterloo as built wasn’t originally intended as a terminus. It was actually only planned to be something of a stopgap. The London and South Western Railway had originally had a terminus at Nine Elms, and had ambitions of reaching the City itself. Waterloo was just a stopping point. Engineer Robert Stephenson (who, with his father George, had constructed the pioneering locomotive Rocket) advised that “there is no point on the south side of the Thames so good for a large railway station, or a combined station, as the south end of Waterloo Bridge.” The LSWR thought they could do better, and so in preparation for the anticipated extension, built a spur line that ran straight through the concourse itself. Achieving their ambitions, however, was going to be difficult. The problem with big projects in London is that it’s a very crowded city, and as a rule people aren’t too happy about you throwing a honking great station up in the middle of town. At the very least, they want a lot of money for it. The LSWR didn’t have that kind of money, which meant that it looked as if Waterloo was the closest the LSWR was ever going to get to the centre of town (until the opening of the Waterloo and City Line in 1898).

And so over the years extensions were added, willy-nilly, until the station was what is known in architectural terms as a “horrendous mess”. By the 1890s, the station had eighteen platforms, numbered one to ten. That is not a misprint. One number was sometimes used to represent two platforms and, in some cases, the platforms just weren’t allocated a number. In such conditions, Platform Nine and Three Quarters actually doesn’t sound so far fetched. The platforms were only part of it. There were also numerous footbridges, roads and tunnels running through the concourse as well as, as I mentioned earlier, an actual railway line with actual trains running on it. Supposedly a country bumpkin who visited the station, on the fifth attempt at working out how to get to his train, was heard to say to his wife, “No wonder the French got licked here, Mary!”

The station was not only confusing, but ugly and poorly-maintained. It was entirely unbefitting of a station that ran services to Ascot, Aldershot, Windsor, Hampton Court and many other respectable destinations – not to mention the occasional Royal train. So it was that at the end of the nineteenth century, the Directors of the LSWR decided that radical surgery was needed. Nothing less than a total rebuild would do, and it was not until 1922 that this was completed. Alas for the LSWR, the following year it would be absorbed into the Southern Railway and cease to exist as a separate entity.

Despite this massive reconstruction work, the site they had was still a pig to work with. The only place where there was space to put the Magnificent Frontage (a phrase I’m using so often that it deserves Capital Letters) was the side blocked off by the South Eastern viaduct which, to be polite, I will describe as “functional rather than cosmetic.” And so it is that if you approach Waterloo from Lambeth, Southwark or the City on foot, you get small, undistinguished entrances. Visually, the Victory Arch looks a little embarrassed to be there, while from all other angles the station is a forbidding monolith that neither welcomes nor impresses the traveller.

Which is a shame, really. Despite the fact that it’s largely a suburban station, it’s actually the largest of London’s termini in terms of overall floor area and, indeed, the number of platforms. Even if you exclude the abandoned ones that until 2007 formed Waterloo International. It’s a little underwhelming from the outside is all.

I think my favourite Waterloo fact was the 1998 argument by Florent Longuepee, a Parisian politician, who complained that it was hugely offensive to the French that they should come into a station named after their defeat. If I were going to be smug, I’d point out that technically the station is named after Waterloo Bridge, so really it’s the bridge he should have been offended about, but unfortunately I was fifteen at the time and no one was interested in my opinions. Longuepee even threatened to rename Gare du Nord to Gare de Fontenoy, after a battle in which the English were defeated by the French. The general reaction to this threat in Britain seems to have been “Fine, we don’t really give a toss.”

All this, of course, is compensated for by the fact that the station has its own completely awesome song. I refer, of course, to the Kinks’ 1967 hit Waterloo Sunset. This, I feel, makes up for everything. What’s less well known is that Ray Davies wrote a follow-up in the 1990s called, appropriately, Return to Waterloo. The title refers to a train ticket.

Further Reading

https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2009/09/14/did-you-see/ – An earlier entry about the Terence Cuneo statue that sits in front of the International platforms.


http://www.facebook.com/pages/Becoming-a-fan-of-things-in-lieu-of-taking-any-real-action/239120483389?v=app_2373072738&ref=nf#/pages/Becoming-a-fan-of-things-in-lieu-of-taking-any-real-action/239120483389?ref=nf – Proving a point on Facebook.

Further Viewing

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmxoqpihE5s – Extract from John Schlesinger’s classic 1961 documentary, Terminus, about a day in the life of Waterloo Station.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvDoDaCYrEY – If you’ve never heard Waterloo Sunset, get yourself some culture.



Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, History, London, London Underground, London's Termini, Transport, Waterloo and Southwark, West End

9 responses to “Waterloo, couldn’t find my train if I wanted to

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  9. Alan

    Another less well known fact is that Bob Geldof also wrote a sequel to Waterloo Sunset, called Love Like a Rocket. A web search will find the lyrics easily enough.

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