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Heroic and sublime; Britain's Historic Railway Buildings: an Oxford Gazetteer of Structures and Sites.


By Gordon Biddle. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003. [pounds sterling]60

Given the depressing, defeatist history of Britain's railways over the last half-century and more, it is a most cheering sight to see the new Channel Tunnel rail link leap across the Medway, but the structure that carries it is scarcely distinguishable from, and no more inspiring than, the adjacent bridge that carries the M2. Our modern railway engineers have lost that sense of the heroic and the sublime that characterized the work of those pioneers--Stephenson, Locke, Brunel--who created the first trunk lines that crossed the landscape of Britain in the 1830s and '40s. Arched masonry viaducts straddled valleys in emulation of the Romans; tunnel portals were given an awesome architectural treatment worthy of Piranesi at his wildest, while the architects who worked with the engineers designed stations of a Renaissance sophistication or of a Picturesque appropriateness to their settings.

As Britain first developed that great boon to civilization--the railway--perhaps it is not surprising that we have now over two thousand government listed railway structures, all described and illustrated in this magnificent compendium, though some may lament that such statutory protection must impede necessary progress. This is not so: not only are early railway structures of great beauty still carrying trains of a speed and weight never envisaged by their designers, but, as Neil Cossons points out in his introduction, 'in recent years there has been growing recognition that many of the structures of the first railway age are not only adaptable to the second but are of such historical and engineering interest and architectural eminence that they offer an immense and unrepeatable opportunity to animate the experience of rail travel with a quality impossible to achieve or afford through total renewal.'

What is sad is that our railway structures ever needed to be listed by government to protect them, but British Rail failed to do so--no, we have not forgotten the Euston Arch--although Railtrack's record is, strange to say, better than the totally nationalized system we had before. And the wealth of listed railway structures is extraordinary: bridges, tunnel portals, retaining walls, signal boxes, viaducts, stations. Some are merely curious, but many are still firm and commodious as well as delightful. This most useful book is the result of a lifetime of railway scholarship; accurate dates and the names of engineers and architects, when known, are given. This is far from being a work of mere trainspotting; in fact, in a strange way, it catalogues the architectural, social and economic history of modern Britain.
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Stamp, Gavin
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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