From Euston Arch to Stephenson’s Bridge

Stephenson's skewed River Irwell railway bridge of 1830 seen from the river.

Stephenson’s skewed River Irwell railway bridge of 1830 seen from the river.

I visit London by train at least five or six times a year for a variety of reasons. Yet, whatever the cause of my trip to what is one the great cities of the world two things always strike me as notable. Firstly, the drama of the landscape of the journey, which starts with industrial Manchester, develops into the rolling foothills of the Peak District, takes in the flatter fields and increasingly large towns of eastern-central England, and finishes with the suburban, then industrial and commercial sprawl of London. Secondly, the shock of Euston Station: from the lead-in of the deep, brick-lined, cutting with its multiplicity of rail tracks, the rectangular canopy of the station building which seems to press down on the long platforms, to the waiting-cum-booking hall which seems designed to intimidate the traveller with its brutalistic concrete architecture.(1) Finally, there is the shock of the exit which is hidden by a group of non-descript office blocks, clustered, seemingly, to hide the embarrassment of the 1960s terminal station from the Euston Road. It is not a building I have any sympathy for….at all.

What is missing, is, of course, is the Euston Arch to give the entrance to the station the dramatic presence of St Pancras or King’s Cross stations, ten-minutes-walk away. Euston Arch was one of the first great monuments of the railway age. Built as a classical triumphal arch in 1837 to a design by Philip Hardwick for the London and Birmingham Railway it marked the entrance to the first great terminal station in London, hiding the mechanical age behind this classical facade. Yet, it was demolished in a hurry without any consultation in December 1961, though amid widespread protest.

The Architectural Review criticised the cynical means employed by British Rail in achieving the demolition of the arch: ‘Its destruction is wanton and unnecessary – connived at by the British Transport Commission, its guardians, and by the London County Council and the Government, who are jointly responsible for safeguarding London’s major architectural monuments, of which this is undoubtedly one. In spite of […] being one of the outstanding architectural creations of the early nineteenth century and the most important – and visually satisfying – monument to the railway age which Britain pioneered, the united efforts of many organisations and individuals failed to save it in the face of official apathy and philistinism.’

Fast-forward 53 years to Network Rail’s northern hub proposals to significantly improve railway capacity between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. This involves building a new line called the Ordsall Chord between Manchester’s Victoria, Oxford Road and Piccadilly Stations. Central to this is a viaduct across the River Irwell which in all its various options will impact on the view and fabric of Stephenson’s classical-inspired 1830 railway bridge, built for the Liverpool to Manchester Railway: the first intercity railway in the world. The proposals will not demolish the viaduct, although it will cut off the rail access to the Manchester Science and Industry Museum, lead to the demolition of two other bridges, one of which is Grade II Listed, and impact on eight other listed structures.

In contrast to the hurried demolition of the unprotected Euston Arch, the alterations to the Grade I Listed Stephenson’s skewed masonry River Irwell Bridge, and the other industrial structures around Liverpool Road Station, are part of three phases of consultation including a public enquiry. This finished gathering evidence at the beginning of June and is due to report its findings in the autumn. I might not agree with the particular option favoured by Network Rail, indeed nor does English Heritage, but the discussions and consultation at least fully recognise the importance of the industrial archaeology of the Liverpool Road Railway Station site, and there is no thought of wholesale demolition in the 1960s style. Progress, then, of sorts in the conservation of our industrial past, and recognition of the central importance to the Industrial Revolution of the building of the railways. As for the Euston Arch, it’s just possible that it might be rebuilt (2) as part of the London terminal for the controversial High Speed 2 line. The Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin announced in March 2014 that he had asked ‘…HS2 Ltd and Network Rail to develop more comprehensive proposals for the redevelopment of Euston, working with the rail industry and the local community. This work should include proposals for the Euston arch, which should never have been knocked down and which I would like to see rebuilt’.(3) Let us hope that we wont be regretting the damage to the Liverpool Road Station site in 50 years times.

1). For a fantastic even beautiful piece of modernist concrete architecture take a trip to Preston to see the bus station cum multi-storey car park.
2). Roughly 60% the stones from the arch were found dumped in the bed of the River Lea, at the Prexcott Channel in eastern London in 1994; “Euston Arch found at bottom of river”. The Times. 4 June 1994.
3)., 18 March 2014. Accessed 21 June 2014.

One thought on “From Euston Arch to Stephenson’s Bridge

  1. Personally, I am fond of Euston station, although it is being hidden by the “group of non-descript office blocks, clustered” outside that spoil it. Inf act as I recall from the yearrs immediately after the new station was compoleted it 1968 I recall it’s frontage was quite imposing across the square, but this view was diestroyed in the 1970S by the Euston Square develoipment. This was not I suspect “to hide the embarrassment of the 1960s terminal station from the Euston Road” but because the British Rail Board could not resist the monetary value of the central London site. It is perhaps no coincidence they adopted Euston House as thier own corporate headquaters.

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