The Art Deco Masterpiece That Is Surbiton Railway Station

By M@ Last edited 12 months ago

Last Updated 09 June 2023

The Art Deco Masterpiece That Is Surbiton Railway Station
A panorama of Surbiton station with a yellow taxi to left

When the world was young I — a fresh-faced student down from the northern provinces — took up temporary lodgings in one of the Surrey commuter towns. The train into London was often a miserable affair. Overcrowded, old-fashioned (it still had compartments) and oft-delayed, we'd struggle in through endless miles of clickety-clack forgettable track.

And then came Surbiton.

Surbiton station's clock tower as seen from the platform

With its soaring clock tower and rail-spanning white walls, Surbiton felt like some kind of romantic gateway into London. A modernist take on the pearly gates of heaven.

And it really is a gateway to the capital. The station sits just a few hundred metres within the Greater London border. Locals might call it Surrey, but Surbiton is definitely within the Mayor of London's fiefdom.

Surbiton station as seen from the High Street

It took me many years to actually go and inspect the milky marvel that is Surbiton station. Travelling to the edge of London to photograph a reinforced concrete box never quite felt like a mission you choose to accept. But I'm glad I finally did. What a masterpiece.

The stunning art deco building is the work of James Robb Scott, perhaps best known for designing the "Victory Arch" entrance to Waterloo station. The contrast could hardly be more stark. Where Waterloo is a baroque-and-roll riot of monumental masonry, his 1937 replacement for an older Surbiton station is clean and boxy, even spartan.

The cavernous ticket office with large windoes

The ticket office is the centrepiece. It's enormous. In the same way we say "they were much smaller back then" when ducking under a medieval doorway, passengers of the future will marvel that "they were much taller back then" when entering this ticket hall. The only way to get it a fair representation in one photo is to use the panorama setting, which explains the warped angles in the photo above.

What look like huge ventilation grilles from outside are revealed as monumental windows from within. Few spaces in London are as bright and spacious as this. It's a theme that continues throughout the station, where connecting passages are bathed in light from glass-brick roofs.

An arch with stairs leading up and the words To The Trains

The station retains many of its original 1930s fixtures and fittings. The ticket machines are modern, of course, but nestled beneath quaint period signs. The beige marbled walls, curved uplighters and lettering are reminiscent of those at St James's Park station and 55 Broadway, which was constructed a decade earlier.

Surbiton station from the outside

The people of Surbiton are very proud of their station. It's Grade II listed and one of the finest examples of art deco on the rail network. A representation of the station can be found a little ways down the High Street on the wall of the local Sainsburys. Which is nice.

A mosaic of Surbiton station and other local landmarks

I came away thinking that Surbiton is less of a gateway to London and more of a destination in its own right. It's time we paid more attention to the town, rather than dismissing it as the epicentre of middle class conformity. That said, it does have a very good faux-art-deco Waitrose.

Surbiton Waitrose

All images by the author, except Waitrose which is from Google Street View.