Rear Window: Heaven to hamburgers: The past illuminates the present

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The Independent Online
'Too often under British Rail ownership, stations have been the Cinderellas of the system,' said John MacGregor, the Transport Secretary, to the Tory conference last week. What they needed was 'private sector finance and expertise to exploit their development and trading potential and help to provide a more attractive environment for passengers'. He plans to lease them to private operators.

THE great hall at Euston Station was, wrote John Betjeman, one of London's finest public rooms. 'Here the passengers could wait in palatial splendour until officials came in and rung a bell and announced the time of departure of trains . . . They could ascend by a double staircase and watch the crowds below from a double gallery which surrounded the whole enormous hall. The style of the hall was Roman Ionic and it was lit by attic windows which cast strong shadow on the elaborately corbelled and coffered ceiling. A statue of George Stephenson dominated the hall.'

Every detail spoke of confidence and pride. When it was built in 1849 it was the only terminus in the capital for trains from Scotland and the North, and the London and North Western Railway - then the richest railway company in the world - raised an edifice that was both a symbol and a service. The ceiling, copied from St Paul's Without in Rome, was the largest of its kind in the world. The hall itself was the biggest waiting room in the British Isles, its floor a mosaic pavement of 'patent metallic lava'. Redecoration required two tons of paint.

All this was swept away in 1963. 'What masterpiece arose on the site?' asked Betjeman. 'No masterpiece.' The poet railed against the airport architecture of the new Euston, its lack of seats, its 'slippery' bars, its echoing Tannoy and its dreadful smells. It was, he said, 'a disastrous and inhuman structure which seems to ignore passengers'.

Betjeman did not live to see the passengers become customers and the great glazed box become a brash bazaar. In the vast open space of the 1960s, now a kind of racecourse, three gaudy islands have arisen. They bear the names Knickerbox, Sock Shop and Sweet Factory. Each is ringed with forlorn figures, old and young, squatting on their luggage before displays of improbable lingerie, awaiting trains to Tring, Manchester and Holyhead.

Euston still has pitifully few seats; a customer in search of repose without beer or burgers will find a door with a discreet sign: 'Welcome to the Pullman Lounge. For the exclusive use of customers holding full fare First Class Single, Return or First Class Executive Tickets who are also carrying an admission card (please inquire at Lounge for details). Press button to speak to reception.'

The illumination for the scene below comes from the neon signs of Casey Jones Burgers, John Menzies, Tie Rack and a battery of fast-sell joints. Above, where Victorians beheld majestic murals and bas-reliefs representing the great cities of the North, are billboard advertisements of the Welsh Development Agency and the National Exhibition Centre at Birmingham.

George Stephenson's statue, erected in 1852 after an appeal that drew donations from 3,150 working men, has long gone, but Robert, the Rocket- maker's son, is still there, out in the windswept forecourt on a plinth between two air ducts.

(Photographs omitted)