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High Street History: Railway stations

Updated Tuesday 3rd July 2007

We're getting there... and railway stations show us how the journey was made.

The old entrance to Highbury Underground Creative commons image Icon Fin Fahey under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

Railway stations

The coming of the railways in the nineteenth century brought with it great social changes. Many towns flourished and expanded with the construction of railway stations. It wasn’t just grimy heavy industry that benefited, but also leisure, as seaside resorts like Skegness and spa towns like Buxton attracted more visitors.

Stations often reflect the prevailing architectural style of the day. Victorian ones may be very grand, perhaps in neo-gothic style or with art nouveau trimmings. Post-war station buildings may have a much cleaner and more functional look, with much glass and concrete.

There is one type of station that tells a different story, though: the abandoned one. In one particular cull of the rail network from 1963 to 1973, almost 3,000 stations closed. Many were demolished, but you may still see some today that remain almost exactly as they were: providing a frozen snapshot of old travelling habits.

Portsmouth railway station Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC


A Victorian neo-gothic frontage dominates Portsmouth station. Train companies (remember, this was long before British Rail) wanted to project an image of grandeur and luxury to their growing numbers of customers. You might notice the ‘nature’ motifs in the ironwork – we might loosely call them art nouveau. These were extremely fashionable at the end of the nineteenth century, and again show the company’s determination to appear stylish.

Leeds City railway station Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University


Leeds City Station façade is determinedly modern: the extensive use of glass is typical. The station was made over between 1999 and 2002 to create an airy and clean look. Perhaps this might not look much like history at the moment, but the style is certainly representative of the late twentieth century. What will we think of it in twenty years time?

Highbury tube entrance Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Highbury old entrance

Here is the former entrance to Highbury tube’s ticketing hall. The station still exists, but its entrance has moved elsewhere. As commuting patterns have changed and new demands such as better accessibility have arisen, so some underground stations have altered their layouts substantially. Others have closed completely, but their old entrances are still in existence: the most famous examples being Brompton Road and Aldwych.

Alton Station Creative commons image Icon craiglea123 via Flickr under Creative-Commons license

Alton Station

This station was one of the victims of the ‘Beeching axe’ that involved a cull of the railway network in the 1960s. It was opened in 1849 to serve Alton Towers: that hasn’t always been a theme park, but it’s long been a pleasure gardens. In that sense, the station is testament to the nineteenth century growth of a leisure industry. Nowadays, though, it has become a wonderful illustration of heritage and conservation in practice. The Landmark Trust maintains it and pays for its upkeep by allowing visitors to stay in the stationmaster’s house.

Taking it further

You might like Small Data: A list of 21st Century Station openings


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