Architecture is consumable −as with any used and abused everyday product decay is inevitable and authenticity fated. John Betjeman was wise to such philosophy when, in 1960, he wrote ‘Heritage of the Rail Age’ in the Daily Telegraph. Apparent in his writing was his blind-passion for the Euston Arch, Philip Hardwick’s 1837 granite monolith that became a symbol, for many, of the railway’s magnitude. The futility of his campaign to save the arch however became evident in December 1961 when the arch was demolished.
Of course the Euston arch was more symbolic than useful, in reality it was a monstrous exaggeration, a sculptural form even, of what was practically needed. Betjeman was acutely aware of the many thousands of utilitarian buildings that served as foot soldiers to the ever expanding railway infrastructure, indeed these signal boxes, waiting rooms and ticket offices can still be seen from any window of any train as it races between station to station.
As I write I am travelling along the Great Western Railway, passing over Brunel’s awe-inspiring Royal Albert Bridge across the river Tamar (1859) from Plymouth, Devon, into Saltash, Cornwall (above). As the rail tracks touch Cornish soil for the first time so the train adopts more pedestrian pace, the guard dons his Bermuda shorts and flip-flops and begins to hum ‘Happy days are here again’. The increased volume of animated conversation in the carriage is palpable. Yet, the euphoria is short lived. Excitement gives way to anxiety. Hushed tones, sombre even, are assumed as the train pulls into Saltash. Commuters that only two minutes prior where gazing in wonder up- and down-stream of the river Tamar devoid of all discontent thoughts, now fretfully overt their eyes away from the carriage window towards fellow commuters, the roof, the ceiling, anything to avoid the embarrassment of connecting with the shameful sight on land.
Adjoining the grade 1 listed bridge, Saltash ticket office and waiting room (c.1860) was once a handsome, modest, almost toll-like, building that once facilitated travellers to purchase an onward ticket towards Paddington or Penzance (above). Today, the building is on its knees, derelict, a blemish on the picturesque scenery that surrounds it. Then a comforting lodge-gate into Cornwall today a neglected and unloved ruin. Horticulture grows through the roof, slates have fallen, windows smashed or bricked-up, Harris fencing surrounds the site as it has for the last decade. A sense of relief is felt as the train pulls out of the station.
The mood lifts at St Germans, where a beautifully restored station graces the platform (left); alongside, stranded, redundant and recycled rail carriages now function as holiday lets. From the mainline we get all too fleeting glimpses of Port Eliot, the magnificent home of the Eliot family, where John Soane, Henry Harrison and Robert Lenkiewicz all applied their respective trades and William Moyle’s mid-16th century almshouses.
From Liskeard the train follows the magnificent Glynn Valley, densely wooded at times, constantly dotted with the remnants of Cornwall’s agricultural past, buildings built around need, incidental to the landscape. To the right we cheat glimpses of Lord Vivian’s mansion house of Glynn, an early 19th century pile rebuilt after a fire before, pulling into Bodmin Parkway where the old signal box now feeds and water weary travellers and the neglected, over scaled, bridge looms overhead.
Onwards, the Fowey Valley flows seamlessly on from the Glynn. Its beauty is incomprehensible. At Restormel −look up and you see the Black Prince’s spectacular medieval castle ruins, look down to see the charming Gothic Duchy house. At St Austell something is amiss. The character of the station has been ripped apart with the removal of the Victorian Ruskinian bridge (above) and the installation of a space-age ‘off the shelf’ bridge from ‘Bridges R Us’ (below). It is a real shame. On the left, the ancient church spire and town, to the right well-to-do Victorian merchant and banker houses, handy for the train station, yet, dominating the skyline is a flimsy, soulless, characterless, bridge which does nothing to enhance the heritage of the of the rail age.
Regardless the train rolls on. The Gothic cathedral of St Mary dominates the Truro vista from the viaduct before the train docks into the handsome Victorian station. We depart simultaneously with the branch line to Falmouth, behind us a patchwork of agricultural and pasture lands, ahead the patina of a mineral rich landscape. Here engine houses stand as ‘memorials to Trevithick and Hornblower’, church towers punctuate a landscape dotted with small killas rubble and granite cottages. The line hugs the fringes of large landed estates as it weaves and rises through the countryside, a landscape that Betjeman described as ‘undeveloped’ −but for how long? We can only wonder as the Cornish planners work hand-in-glove with national developers to scar and build over this unspoilt land in an attempt to add 50,000 new homes to the county.
This journey has made me realise that rail heritage is still being diluted., as it was when Betjeman wrote 55 years ago. The architecture, the infrastructure, the views, all eroding before our eyes, a casualty of changing needs and opinions. At St Erth station Network Rail plan to rid themselves of the antiquated historic bridge in favour of a sleek, anonymous, affair with lifts in the towers, identical to the one we saw at St Austell. Along the route we have witnessed tangible neglect and inappropriate interventions, but now the few of us left in the carriage marvel at St Michael’s Mount honing into view, a glorious scene, undoubtedly one of the best in England. With a quickening pulse the train reaches the western terminus, Brunel’s sheds at Penzance, 305 miles from Paddington, London.