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Findlater’s Corner under restoration.

Railway Renovation

Think railways, and what do you see in your mind’s eye? All too often a boarded-up building. If it’s old, leave it to rot or knock it down. For decades that’s been the way of the railways. Worse, rebuild it in steel and glass, bus-shelter style. But times are changing. Railway renovation is coming.

Semi-derelict frontage of the railway arches at Findlater’s Corner, London Bridge.
A year ago, this was the sorry sight that met passengers as they turned the corner into London Bridge Station. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.

Next to London Bridge Station, there’s a classic example of a boarded-up building. It’s a most unusual railway arch, embellished with a Beaux Arts faience façade and clock. Known as Findlater’s Corner after the wine merchants who traded here from 1865 to 1967, it has been lying empty since the last tenant, Oddbins, moved out four years ago.

A couple of weeks ago, at a meeting of the Advisory Panel of The Railway Heritage Trust, I heard a presentation on Findlater’s Corner which caught my imagination. Anna Jipps, Company Secretary of The Railway Heritage Trust, has been up on the scaffolding and she gave us a report on the renovation work that’s been going on behind the hoardings.

Scene behind the hoardings as cleaning reveals the late-1890s faience balustrade at Findlater’s Corner.
A century’s worth of soot and grime is cleaned away, revealing Doulton Carraraware in excellent condition. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.

Past glory recovered
The parapet has been cleaned and restored. Invading buddleia has been removed, revealing intriguing details not seen for a century or more. Behind the main façade there is a gap, and beyond that stands an earlier façade, still intact. The original was built of stone in 1865. A new one was simply added in front in around 1897. This is constructed of smog-resistant glazed ceramics called Carraraware made at the nearby Doulton factory on the Albert Embankment, a material similar to that used on the Savoy Hotel. The gap has now been roofed to prevent further plant growth. When the clock was taken out for servicing, you could see the name Findlater’s incised, faintly but legibly, on the stonework behind. ‘Finding hidden details like this,’ says Anna Jipps, ‘is an intrinsic part of railway heritage work. It’s a privilege. You’re seeing into the past.’

The word Anno appears in sharp relief on the cleaned parapet of Findlater’s Corner.
An elaborate date scroll reappears in sharp relief on the back of the late-1890s parapet. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.

Joint venture
Like so many renovation projects on the railways, the work on Findlater’s Corner is being carried out by a group of organizations, including The Arch Company, a business backed by private equity which took a very long lease on Network Rail’s portfolio of arches in 2019; ITC, a firm of building contractors from Croydon; Southwark Council; the Heritage of London Trust; and The Railway Heritage Trust, chaired by Andy Savage and directed by Tim Hedley-Jones. The Railway Heritage Trust has contributed a grant of £70,000 and is offering another £50,000 to restore further elements including an Express Dairy mosaic discovered under the arches.

Though it’s hard to imagine, looking at the narrow frontage, the restored Findlater’s Corner will have space for four new commercial units ranging from kiosk size to more than 4,000 square feet, suitable for shops and restaurants. What had been another unloved corner, a scene of neglect and dereliction, will soon be reinstated as an architectural asset, a landmark breathing new life into the railway estate, helping to raise the profile of the train operating companies. Not that the operating companies always see it like that.

A remnant of 1865 stonework at Findlater’s Corner is under attack from buddleia.
Buddleia has colonized part of the original 1865 frontage. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage
The original Findlater’s lettering is still visible in the stonework of the original 1865 façade.
Glimpsed through the clock opening, the original Findlater’s lettering is still visible in the stonework of the 1865 façade. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.

Two sides of the balance sheet
All too often, operating companies look at only one side of the balance sheet. Holding full repairing leases, they are liable for all the maintenance costs which, after long periods of neglect, can escalate to unwelcome proportions. Rather than repair, some companies seek to demolish. If thwarted by conservationists, their next course of action is to leave a building closed and wait for it to decay to the point of no return. Regarding lineside buildings purely as a drain on resources, they completely miss the investment opportunity these buildings represent.

There is a business case for repair and restoration. Tracks, signalling and rolling stock are only ever part of a railway journey. If people are to be coaxed out of their cars, their journeys need to be not only fast and convenient but also visually rewarding. Organizations such as Save Britain’s Heritage, The Victorian Society and The Railway Heritage Trust have demonstrated that abandon and decay is an outdated strategy, which works against the interests of the railways.

Feel-good factor
In the 19th century huge amounts of money and architectural ingenuity were invested by the railway companies in stations, bridges, viaducts, tunnel portals and retaining walls to provide their passengers with a memorable travelling experience. To repeat a cliché, the journey was as important as the destination. As Daniel Burnham said of his mighty Union Station in Washington, DC, ‘Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.’ Projects like the restored St Pancras Station are testament to the continuing power of this vision. It’s a pleasure to tarry in the magnificent Booking Office bar before boarding your train.

Railway companies today are missing an opportunity if they do not see architecture as an asset. Good architecture attracts people, lifts their spirits. Railways have lots of it in their portfolio. Use it, I say. Make the most of it. Enhance it. Restore it. Learn the grammar of ornament, respect the styles, honour the craftsmanship and value the materials, which are almost invariably of higher quality than what you can source today.

The interior of the former ladies’ waiting room at Eynsford Station is defaced by electrical cables and partition walls.
Before restoration, electrical cables and rough partitions deface the former ladies’ waiting room at Eynsford. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.
Modern strip lights hang from a 19th-century wooden cross beam inside Eynsford Station.
Before completion, glaring strip lights hang from a cross beam at Eynsford. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.
Glass lanterns hang from a wooden cross beam inside Eynsford Station.
On completion, glass hanging lanterns provide a more homely atmosphere. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.
A view across the restored waiting room at Eynsford Station.
In the reopened waiting room at Eynsford, the fireplace once again provides a focal point, the upper panels in the door have been glazed, the wainscotting painted an appropriate colour and a cast-iron column radiator installed. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.

Country stations
These principles hold good for even the most minor country station. Who wants to alight at a platform shorn of all adornment? If a station building survives, why not make the most of it? At Eynsford in Kent, a committed local group set their mind to re-opening the former ladies’ waiting room, which was in a sorry state. They asked The Railway Heritage Trust to help them restore it. The result, if small in scale, is a triumph in attention to detail. Thanks to a £24,000 grant, harsh strip lights have been replaced with appropriate hanging lanterns, ugly cabling concealed, suitable paint colours chosen, the fireplace uncovered and windows un-boarded. Credit is due to Sevenoaks Town Council, Darent Valley Community Rail Partnership, Southeastern and Govia Thameslink Railway for working together to carry out the works. With a sympathetic treatment like this, railway travel can become a pleasure once again. Home lovers do not become philistines when they enter the public sphere. Design and decoration count in public spaces as much as they do in private.

A boarded-up window opening at Eynsford Station.
Before renovation, the windows at Eynsford were boarded up. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.
A reopened window at Eynsford Station.
After renovation, a window at Eynsford is revealed to have double sashes with pointed arches. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.
The platform doors at Eynsford have their fanlight boarded up and are painted an institutional grey.
Before renovation, the platform doors at Eynsford have their fanlight boarded up. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.
After renovation, the platform doors at Eynsford have their fanlight uncovered.
After renovation, the platform doors have their fanlight uncovered, revealing a pointed-arch design. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.
A close-up of the waiting-room door at Eynsford Station.
After renovation, the waiting-room door is elegantly painted and glazed and back in use with its original brass door furniture. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.

Art Deco splendour
Another renovation, impressive for both its visual splendour and honouring of original features, was finished at the Art Deco Leamington Spa Station just in time for the opening of the Commonwealth Games in nearby Birmingham. Here there were abandoned refreshment rooms. Here again, a dedicated local group saw potential and organized a rescue. And again, The Railway Heritage Trust helped to fund the work.

Close up of Art Deco doors at Leamington Spa Station.
Before renovation, the refreshment rooms at Leamington Spa were closed but intact, down to their Art Deco chrome door furniture. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.
Mahogany panelling and radiator cover at Leamington Spa Station.
The mahogany panelling at Leamington Spa was a bit knocked about but unmolested. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.
Counter top and other fittings in the Leamington Spa Station refreshment rooms before renovation.
After years of use, the counter top was tired but salvageable. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.

The impetus in Leamington Spa came from an imaginative business called Centenary Lounge, who specialize in reviving Art Deco cafés. They had already won a Theo Paphitis Small Business Sunday Award for their Birmingham Moor Street Café. Leamington Spa fitted their model perfectly. Virtually all the original 1930s fixtures and fittings had survived, including panelling and plasterwork. All that was needed was sensitive recommissioning. The result is an utterly spectacular interior, a place where one would love to wait for a train.

Cakes and pastries on display on the counter at the reopened Leamington Spa refreshment rooms.
With a bit of careful cleaning and a new counter top, the refreshment rooms are restored to their former glory. Photo courtesy The Railway Heritage Trust.

Further reading…
The Railway Heritage of Britain describes and illustrates more than 500 historic railway structures with detailed information on every item, including date built, name of architect or engineer if known, original operating company and location. The Victorian House Book has advice on the sympathetic repair and decoration of original features, with 2,000 illustrations. Logomotive tells the story of American railway design, from logos and liveries through to station architecture.

More articles…
Truth and Beauty in Architecture, The Regeneration of King’s Cross Station, Brave New London Bridge?, Sir George Gilbert Scott, Honouring Past Craftsmen.

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