An Ode To Euston Station

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 90 months ago

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An Ode To Euston Station

It must have been like that moment in a film when someone peels back the facelift bandages, and the onlookers recoil with bug-eyed horror.

On 14 October 1968, Euston station was reopened with a cordial grimace by the Queen. Gone was the Grand Hall with its plump ionic columns, its statue of Robert Stephenson — father of the railways — and waiting room trees bearing over-ripe light bulbs. Gone was the palatial edifice of the Euston and Victoria hotels that looked like they'd been carved from sugarloaf. Gone was Philip Hardwick's Euston Arch.

Her Majesty had just unleashed Euston mark two — an edgy, streamlined, louring — and almost immediately unloved — design, constructed by nuclear power station builders Taylor Woodrow.

Five years earlier, a Euston-bound mail train had been caught up in the Great Train Robbery — now, had an even greater crime against the railways been committed?

Still courtesy of British Pathe

"Euston always reminds me of a giant bath," said Michael Palin in his 1980 programme Confessions of a Train Spotter. "Lots of smooth, slippery marble and glass surfaces, so that people can be sloshed quickly and efficiently around."

We'd go further than that; the slate-blackness of the station has something of the night about it — like it's been made from recycled mortuary slabs. No matter how many WHSmiths you slot in (there are two), no matter how many Burger Kings (there were two, now there's just one) when somewhere feels so like a necropolis station, it's hard to tell yourself you're headed for Birmingham, not your doom.

The passengers feel the same way, albeit in more muted tones:

"I think it's now looking very dated actually," explains Andrew, who's heading to Tring today with his friend Paul.

"Of all the major — certainly north London stations — it's the least attractive. It's looking like its era, the early 1960s. Compare this with the new King's Cross or the new St Pancras — even Paddington — I think this is by far the least attractive."

Shabhid has worked on an information desk in Euston for 15 years — so perhaps he's come to terms with the station's aesthetic shortcomings better than most.

In between informing customers which platform to go to, or explaining they've spent far too much on a ticket, Shabhid explains somewhat cautiously about Euston: "I can't say pretty or not pretty but the service is good. Obviously looks count as well. But the main thing is the comfort."

We can see that he has a soft spot for Euston, but his concept of comfort might be overstretched.

The way Euston is laid out, you'd think it was a crime to sit. Using your suitcase as a chair is de riguer, unless you slink to the edges of the forecourt, like you've been sin binned — or venture up onto the mezzanine where there's a kind 0f makeshift doctors waiting room (you'll need to buy your own magazine from one of the WHSmiths).

Getting around isn't easy either — the platforms are hidden away behind a parade of shops, while your first or last sight of London is a nightmarish casserole of bus station, Nando's and William Hill.   

What comes around goes around; through the herds of passengers loitering for their trains, you might just make out the 2014 sculpture Captain Matthew Flinders and his cat Trim. The explorer — the first to circumnavigate Australia, and thought to be buried beneath the station — courageously tries to plot his route around coffee cups and McDonald's wrappers discarded by uncaring people. Trim turns his back on his master, sickened by their treatment.

Elsewhere, Euston's art is treated as if by a spoilt oligarch — strewn about the place with no rhyme or reason. An obelisk commemorating first world war fallen is perpetually encircled in a wreath of fumes — endless double-deckers pinging off the roundabout. That Stephenson statue which once presided over the Great Hall is now exiled to the courtyard, wedged between an All Bar One and a Pret.

And of course the best-known work of art, the Euston Arch, was notoriously pneumatic drilled to death then dumped in an east London canal in 1961, like the victim of a grizzly Krays murder.

John Betjeman tried and failed to stop it, with a campaign to move the arch on rollers to a nearby safe haven. "People always think if you have something beautiful it's wicked, nowadays," he said.

And though described by one critic as a "a ponderous, lurking cack-bastard", the arch continues to be mourned. A few of the stones dredged up from the Prescott Channel were briefly on show outside Euston in 2015, but a more concrete celebration is the Doric Arch — a pub dotted with railway gimcrack. It's a nice enough place to wait for a train, but hardly somewhere you'd go out of your way to visit.

The ornate Euston Tap

Another pub — or rather two — certainly are worth a detour. The Euston Tap — a pint-sized craft beer bar ensconced in one of Philip Hardwick's old stations lodge buildings — has fast become one of the best-loved pubs in the area. Its sister The Cider Tap, hasn't fared quite so well and is about to become a bar dedicated to beer from the north of England.

These bars have proved themselves the biggest positive change to the area in decades — soon after opening time each day, they're swarming with drinkers who've trains to catch, and others who probably don't.

Photograph: Grimshaw Architects/PA

Turns out the Taps are beacons of great change.

Euston will soon be on the end of a whopping great makeover, that will see a sweeping golden roof crowning the new high speed rail trains set to depart here from 2026.

The original plan was to raze the whole station to the ground, and start over. Revised designs mean the Euston of the 1960s will remain buried beneath the floorboards of the new one, like Flinders. As long as they keep the two Taps, and install some seats, the architects can hardly go wrong — but we hope they go a lot further, and come up with something as inspiring as the nearby King's Cross and St Pancras stations.

In the meantime, it's worth visiting the 1960s Euston station. If you fail to sift any beauty from its grey-granite gloom, at least you can allow yourself a little smirk, safe in the knowledge it's about to get a taste of its own medicine.

Last Updated 25 October 2016