Tag Archives: london and north eastern railway

Getting Cross

Seeing the new Harry Potter film (it turns out Voldemort and Tom Riddle are the same person) has inspired me to continue my thrilling series on the termini of London with King’s Cross.

Thanks to the Harry Potter franchise, King’s Cross is now probably the most famous railway station in London. Although, as I believe I said before, it rather irritates me that in the films, they decided to use St Pancras for the external shots instead. I don’t know, maybe they just felt that King’s Cross didn’t look stereotypically British enough, or just not sufficiently magical.

I know you’re not supposed to, but I actually prefer the architecture of King’s Cross to its Gothic neighbour. Its Italianate simplicity has a kind of casual dignity, a kind of unfussy impressiveness, like it’s cool and it doesn’t even need to try. Granted, these days it’s a little spoilt by that municipal bus shelter thing British Rail saw fit to graft on to its front, but that’s due to be demolished, so thank God for the triumph of common sense.

The station was designed by Lewis Cubitt for the Great Northern Railway, a company whose name alone inspires. It was opened in 1852, and the simplicity of the design was actually a deliberate measure to save money. The whole station, including the Great Northern Hotel, cost less than the frontage alone at Euston Station, a snip at £123,000 for the biggest station in London at the time.

The only conspicuous ornamentation was on the clock tower, which had been on display at the Great Exhibition the previous year. For some reason it has four faces, even though one is never visible due to the fact that there’s a bloody great train shed in the way. The clock also used to have three bells for sounding the hour, but these were removed in 1947. It’s also worth noting that it never agreed with the clock at St Pancras, which must have made for some interesting scenes among last-minute passengers.

As time went on, the original station was found wanting – pity the poor signalman, who had to juggle local services, goods trains, expresses to Scotland and, from the 1860s, Metropolitan Railway trains (which had to come in backwards). At peak times there was so much traffic that it could take up to half an hour to cover the half a mile to Holloway. Extra platforms were added and, in 1875, a whole new station. This was known as “Kings Cross Main Line (Local Station),” but is now the suburban platforms. This, fans of the Harry Potter books should note, is where Platforms 9 and 10 can be found. Legend also has it that this is the site of Boudicca’s grave, although scholars refer to this theory as “bollocks.”

In 1878, the Metropolitan got its own platforms (or, as they were known then, “Kings Cross (Suburban),” which is of course not confusing in the slightest), which were notorious among train drivers for being very difficult to start from – the tunnel leading out was smoky in steam days and the track was steeply graded and sharply curved, and condensation made the rails slippery. Some poor egg was stationed in the tunnel to drop sand on the rails every time a train went by. In 1932, one train actually slipped backwards without the driver realising until it bumped into the locomotive behind.

Various other alterations followed over the years, but I suspect they would be of zero interest to anyone other than my fellow geeks, so I’ll spare you for now.

The station has always been associated with speed and the romance thereof. In the late 19th century, they were one of the starting points for the Races to the North, when the East and West Coast railways competed to see who could provide the fastest service to Scotland (an unfortunate side effect of which was that passengers often ended up in Aberdeen at around 4am).

During the twentieth century, the luxurious expresses of the London and North Eastern Railway departed from King’s Cross. Most famous of these was the non-stop Flying Scotsman, but one should not forget the streamlined splendour of the Silver Jubilee, the Coronation or the Queen of Scots.

This art deco opulence was slightly marred in 1934 by the discovery of a gruesome crime – a disembodied pair of legs were found in the left luggage office. The crime was never solved, and the only lead police had was that the legs fitted a torso found in the luggage office at Brighton. This can only mean one thing – if a man can carry half a woman on the Underground across London without being noticed, there is no excuse for those tourists who make a massive hash of simply carrying a suitcase.

The station sustained some damage during World War II and was taken over by British Railways in 1948 who, as they so loved to do, ran the place into the ground. One notable event during the 1950s was the station’s prominent role in The Ladykillers, about which I have written before.

A plan was drawn up in the Sixties to extensively modernise the station with a new extension. This never came to pass. but based upon the contemporary account by Alan A. Jackson that I have in front of me, it would basically have been like what we got, only bigger and worse. The horrible extension that was actually built appeared in 1972.

The station saw a number of accidents over its lifetime, mostly caused by the aforementioned steep gradients, but the King’s Cross fire of 18th November 1987 was something else entirely. A discarded match or cigarette set fire to forty years’ worth of accumulated debris under one of the escalators in the Underground station. As a result of a hitherto unknown phenomenon called “the trench effect,” and the drafts caused by trains moving through the tunnels down below, this resulted in a conflagration that claimed the lives of thirty-one people. Subsequent to this, fire safety precautions on the Tube were drastically overhauled and smoking was banned altogether.

1997 saw the station achieve worldwide fame with the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in which Harry famously takes the Hogwarts Express from Platform Nine-And-Three-Quarters (although, as I’ve said before, it seems possible that J. K. Rowling was thinking of a different station altogether). In tribute to this, half a luggage trolley is stuck into the wall near the suburban platforms. There is no Platform 9¾ for us Muggles, alas, but as of 2010 there is a Platform 0, which frankly I find a little sinister.

I’ll say one thing for the modern railway, they have finally figured out that maybe a nice, user-friendly, aesthetically-pleasing station is what people want, and in 2005 plans were announced to restore the station. It was decided that nothing could be better than the 1972 extension, and therefore they are replacing it with nothing – it’s being demolished and turned into a plaza. The older buildings are being cleaned and patched up and a new, modern (in a good way) concourse is being put up to the west of the station.

The future is looking bright for Cubitt’s creation. All in all, it’s not been a bad life for an economy terminus.

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Marylebone (Great Central)

Poor Marylebone. It’s a terminus you have to feel sorry for. It’s one of the smallest main line termini as well as the youngest. It only has six platforms, meaning it’s outdone by the likes of Richmond and Wimbledon out in the suburbs. Even the Underground virtually snubs it, only serving it with the Bakerloo Line.

The fact is, Marylebone never really had a chance. It was built by the Great Central Railway, opening in 1899 – long after the other main line companies had already got their foot in the door. The Great Central Railway, by the way, should not be confused with the Great Northern, Great Eastern, Great Western or Great North of Scotland Railways.

The Great Central Railway was a somewhat pointless enterprise. By the time it was built, several of the places it ran to already had a railway. Oddly enough, one of the railways it was in competition with was the Metropolitan Railway, now of course the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground. I say oddly because a gentleman by the name of Edward Watkin was on the board of directors for both and had the ultimate ambition of a train service all the way from Manchester to Paris, using railways in which he had a controlling interest and an ambitious 19th century Channel Tunnel project.

Sadly, as we know, it was not to be, and the Great Central remained the line that no one asked for. Chronically short of money, the company could barely afford to get into London, squeezing in between Euston and Paddington. Even their station hotel, normally a grand statement by the railway to say “We Are Here,” had to be contracted out. Nevertheless, the company remained optimistic. Although they could only afford four platforms, they planned for ten. All this despite the fact that they couldn’t even afford their own trains.

Making things worse for them was the fact that much of their route into London was already developed. The biggest obstacle was, in fact, cricket fans – the proposed route would have threatened Lord’s, and so the plans had to be hastily rewritten accordingly.

Architecturally, it has to be said that a very nice job  was done on the station. While it’s not as grand as either Euston (as it was before redevelopment) or Paddington, it provides a pleasant aesthetic contrast with both, being constructed in a baroque style. It looks more like a country house than a railway station, but that’s no bad thing when it harmonises so well with its surroundings.

The station suffered when Britain’s railways were nationalised. More important services were diverted to the larger stations, turning little Marylebone into little more than a commuter station. Maintenance was cut down. Under the notorious head of British Railways, Dr Richard Beeching, any line seen as a loss-maker was to be culled, and Beeching was ruthless. The former Great Central was the only main line to be closed, and with only a few commuter services to justify it, it looked like curtains for Marylebone. I refer once again to Alan A. Jackson’s London Termini, written during this turbulent period (in 1969 to be precise), in which he notes that:

Marylebone seems unlikely to last much longer. Already much of the goods yard has been sold for building. The temptation to dispose of the rest, which is on higher-value land, must be very strong… The killing could be done without too much pain, but when it comes, there will be a certain sadness.

Indeed, plans were made to divert all services to other termini and turn Marylebone into a coach station – Jackson’s prophecy looked worryingly close to becoming a reality.

In retrospect, we know now that a lot of the cuts were over-hasty, leaving many communities with inadequate public transport and forcing them on to the roads, with obvious environmental consequences. Indeed, railway historian Christian Wolmar has argued that even the Great Central shouldn’t have been closed, precisely because it served a lot of places that already had a rail link – it could have been used to increase the number of services to those destinations.

Is it worth noting that Ernest Marples, the Minister for Transport under whom Beeching worked, owned a road building company? I think it is. To be fair, when it was pointed out that there was a conflict of interest, he sold his shares in the company. By a million-to-one chance, they were bought up by his wife. Eventually he was forced to flee to Monaco due to legal difficulties and a heinous amount of tax fraud, living the remainder of his life in his French chateau. What a bastard.

The tube station was originally known by the railway name.

But anyway. Marylebone. Marylebone is a shining example of why it’s a good idea not to close stations. In the 1980s, Paddington was becoming overcrowded. And fortunately for British Rail, it happened that there was a badly underused terminus just down the road. Marylebone, the little terminus that no one wanted, found itself in demand. It was revamped – unused land was sold to finance repairs and rebuilding. In the 1990s, it gained two new platforms. About a hundred years later than planned, but still. Plans are afoot to reopen lines (including part of the old Great Central) and provide new train services to Wales, and suddenly Marylebone is, metaphorically speaking, the prettiest girl at the dance.

By the way, do you pronounce it “Marlibun” or “Marri-le-bone?” I was always taught the former was correct, but I seem to be the only person who pronounces it that way. Hmm.


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