Inside Marylebone, London's Quaintest Rail Terminus

By James FitzGerald Last edited 26 months ago

Last Updated 29 April 2022

Inside Marylebone, London's Quaintest Rail Terminus
Not a lot's changed since 1899

What's your favourite railway terminal? It's an unusual icebreaker. But ask a Londoner — and if they can remember it's there — they might answer with Marylebone.

Somehow, this dinky redbrick station is in the railway Champions League. Reportedly, it's the country's fifth most popular station, despite being the capital's youngest terminal (at a sprightly 120 years) and its smallest, by passenger numbers.

It punches above its weight with a square on the Monopoly board. It's also a filmmaker's favourite; The Beatles' A Hard Days' Night is one of many famous flicks shot within these picturesque walls.

So what's behind this Marylebone-mania?

"It's cosier than the other stations," says Nora from Italy, who's going shopping in Oxfordshire.

"It's quaint," Amrat from Amersham tells us. "You can walk around without bumping into millions of people."

"It's like a smaller King's Cross," says Sam, who has a meeting to get to in High Wycombe.

"It’s a phoenix that's risen from the ashes." That's Andy Chesson, Chiltern Railways' revenue protection manager. He knows Marylebone inside out. "It's important to understand where we've come from and the challenges we've had", Chesson explains, as he takes us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the 1899 building. He started working here in 1993 and has even served as Marylebone's manager.

The station's has a tumultuous journey - from the brink of near obliteration to today's thriving, modernising hub.

"You make friends here"

Andy Chesson's worked at Marylebone since 1993

Marylebone is the sort of place Ealing Comedy characters get on trains; it's unique in its old-fashioned feel of London community. "You form good friendships with everyone here," explains James Garibaldi, the current station manager. "I think you lose that at a bigger station." He and his successor Chesson are caught in endless salutations to regular commuters as we tour the station.

Marylebone has six platforms, having once had four. But it really wanted eight. Digging one of the station tunnels in the 1890s meant striking a deal with nearby Lord's Cricket Ground. The other tunnel remains unused, and some well-to-do so-and-so has done a basement extension into it.

At first glance, the concerns here feel village-like; provincial. In vain, we look around for a station cat, a Fat Controller. In the grandly-named Operational Control, which deals with the announcements and departure boards, we find two people and a coffee machine. If the station power goes down, the solution is to plug a bunch of car batteries into some emergency lighting.  

Much of Marylebone's charm is down to its petite size

We feel we've seen more staff and steampower used to keep a model railway on track.

But. From a commanding vantage point, Marylebone managers past and present survey passengers below on the concourse. "It can look fairly calm one minute, but two or three minutes later, if you haven't had trains depart for a while…" says Garibaldi, his voice trailing off ominously.

"It's all down to how well you know the station and how well you know your people," adds Chesson. "You can go and work at a smaller and quieter station like Marylebone, but if you don't know it very well, you can make… wrong decisions."

"Ni hao!"

William guards Marylebone's famed collection of lost bits and bobs

Smaller station, friendlier service? Lose a wallet here, and the staff will do some detective work to track you down, even if that means calling your dentist. Down in the station's catacombs is the fabled lost property collection. A child's bicycle, ironing board, food mixer, and violin (not that violin) have all ended up here recently.

William, who guards the hoard today, points out a shelf of luggage cases. Increasingly, there is a trend of wealthy shoppers travelling by Chiltern Railways to Bicester Village, buying new clothes, getting changed in train toilets, and dumping their old garments in bags there and then.

But such is the volume of international traffic to the Village that Chiltern decided to start making announcements in Mandarin and Arabic as well as in English. Bilingual speakers now staff the ticket barriers: a far cry from the hulking scary blokes who used to work the beat at rail stations.

Marylebone welcomes a tourist contingent heading to Bicester Village and elsewhere

"For some people, this is their first time on a British train," explains Garibaldi. “They appreciate having someone to say, 'it’s okay, don't worry,' and to explain things in their language."

Bicester's faux 'village' (shopping centre) is among the most visited UK sites by Chinese tourists — and there are also popular places on the Chiltern network with cultural clout, too. With Oxford, Leamington Spa, Stratford-upon-Avon and Bekonscot Model Village among its destination points, Marylebone is the launch-point for many an escapist. For many of us, it brings fond memories of grand days out.  

As well as being a pretty station that takes you fun places, Marylebone has in the past been no stranger to its own little merriment. A sports bar stands on the site of the former railway workers' club. Chesson recalls the sort of conversation that was had on the telephone here in the old days. "Operational Control would ring up and ask, 'is Bill in there?' 'Yeah.' 'Can he go and work a train?' 'Well, he would, but he's just got the beers in.' 'Oh, that's alright — I'll get someone else then...'

"It’s hard to believe, but railway workers were allowed to drink at work until 1992," Chesson explains. "Now, things have gone the other way, and railways are ultra-safe."

"It won't be like this forever"

Exterior of Marylebone Station, 1923. © TfL, London Transport Museum Collection

At Marylebone, old traditions die hard. Until 2004, some beautiful but fire-unsafe escalators led down to the tube: these were kept longer than at any other sub-surface station. Even now, you'll find on the Marylebone concourse some old-school professions harking back to rail's golden age.

Beside the ticket gates is a shoe-shining business. "I love the station. It's nice and quiet," says owner Shanjib. "I get to meet new people. And I get good tips."

A number three while you wait for the 3 o'clock train

The staff of Paul & Chris Barber Shop see themselves as the last of the Mohicans. "In the '80s, every railway terminal had a barber shop," explains John inside. "The others are all coffee shops now.

"Marylebone is London's most civilised station. You can watch the departure boards while you get a quick cut in here. I'm sure the station won’t be like this forever, but it would be nice to preserve it."

"It's charming: it's not modern"

The station has just six platforms - but always wanted more

In many ways, Londoners are lucky the station has lasted as long as this. In the 1980s, Marylebone survived an attempted closure under a bizarre plan that would have seen the station and its network converted for use by coaches. When Chesson started working here in 1993, officials' faith in Marylebone's future was still low. So low that they didn't even bother to staff a ticket office here.

Following the government's rail sell-off, investment trickled in and the network was able to restore tracks that had been controversially taken away decades before. Chiltern Railways announced its 2015 opening of a link from Marylebone to Oxford as the first new connection between two major British cities for 100 years.

"I'm very pro-rail anyway," says Chesson of his relief at Marylebone’s salvation. "There's a lot of talk about getting cars off the road and people onto public transport. Well, that's very difficult to do when you're closing railways."

Bye bye scary hulks working on railway ticket barriers, and ni hao to friendly bilingual speakers

Passengers find much to love — and one or two things to grumble about — in Marylebone's old-school ways.

"My part of Buckinghamshire is not really that great," explains Ollie, who's just arrived in the Big Smoke for his first job interview. "I'd rather come to London. And when I do, this is the building that welcomes me — with big arms. I do use Euston sometimes — but it's no Marylebone."

"It's very charming; it's not very modern," says Christian, who's on his way home. "If you go to a station like King's Cross, it’s been decimated at the front with the glass structure."

"It’s a bit old-fashioned, and it hasn't got all the shops and everything that St Pancras does," opines Rona from Oxfordshire. "But it's fine."

For Jennifer, from Wycombe, Marylebone's facilities aren't keeping pace with London's other termini. "They charge for toilets, which I think is not only just a bit wrong — it's also discriminatory against people who have IBS. If you’re having an attack, you've got to pay 30p. In coins."

Chiltern says each 30p contributes towards dedicated cleaning and maintenance. It reviews the charge but currently has no plans to change it.

No maelstroms, marathons or modernism

Where else but the gents' toilets to proudly reference Marylebone's Monopoly square?

The operator is keen to modernise. It has the last London mainline running on diesel rather than electricity, and has installed some nifty green tech at Marylebone to help make up for that.

At the same time, this lovely historic building is under the influence of strong conservation voices who, Chesson says, are the key to the station being what it is today. Among Marylebone's treasures are an original porte-cochère (a covered walkway that leads to the opposing Landmark Hotel). And pop into Marks & Spencer to spot original features of the Victorian booking hall behind food shelves.

Soon, Marylebone will have to navigate another junction in its future. Passenger numbers are up year on year, and the building creaks when delays hit. Chesson would love to raise up the roof to install a mezzanine level. But would tweaks to the building sacrifice its charm and antiquity?

For now, these dilemmas make the place all the more enchanting. London's other termini have their positives - but their severe detractions, too. There are the crowds at Waterloo. The long walking distances at London Bridge. And the unlovely architecture at Euston. But Marylebone has no such maelstroms, marathons, or Modernism. Marylebone's just merry.

Just don't ask us for the proper pronunciation of its name. Even the staff can't agree on that one.