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  1. Wealth
March 27, 2011updated 28 Jan 2016 6:15pm

Curzon Street Revisited

By William Cash

Naming a new high-speed rail station after Lord Curzon expresses British pride in travel – and in our superb buildings for travel

Naming a new high-speed rail station after Lord Curzon expresses British pride in travel – and in our superb railway architecture
FOLLOWING MY BLOG confession that I am an occasional 5am commuter from the London ‘suburb’ of Wolverhampton to London Euston, I have been getting increasingly excited about the prospect – once the building of the new high-speed London-Midlands rail-link (HS2) is underway – of starting to admit to people that I actually live near Birmingham, a city that has the opportunity to soon be boasting one of the architectural railway terminal wonders of the world.

To understand the significance of this, consider how the ‘Midlands’ has been re-branded over the last 30 years. In the seventies, when I was at school, Shropshire did not officially exist. Following the Local Government Act 1972, the official name of the county became Salop, which in French creole means literally ‘nasty’. According to the, the word ‘salop’ can also be used ‘to describe someone who is promiscuous, filthy, or simply does not care. The word is predominantly used as an expletive in many former French colonies’. The on-line dictionary gives an etymological example:

Patrick: “Jack’s girl has been sleeping with five guys behind his back”

John “Five guys! Where mate pick up that salop”

So much for the romance of Shropshire, as immortalised by AE Houseman in A Shropshire Lad, and EM Forster in Howard’s End (with Forster changing the Welsh border town of Clun into Oniton). In his famous song On Wenlock Edge, the 20th century composer Vaughan Williams captured the dramatic grandeur of the Shropshire landscape around Much Wenlock in his moving composition for a string quartet and piano using the words of Housman’s poem.

P. G. Wodehouse set his Blandings novels in a lush aristocratic estate in the county, describing Shropshire as ‘the nearest earthly place to paradise’. The most likely inspiration for Blandings Castle was Weston Park (home of the Earls of Bradford) although Attingham, Hawkstone Hall and Powis Castle also claim elements of their houses were used as social wallpaper for Wodehouse’s comic pastoral masterpiece. My father always used to claim that Upton Cressett was also an inspiration for Blandings as Wodehouse was brought up close by and is on record as having gone for boyhood country walks and bicycle rides in the narrow, cow-parsley filled lanes around our remote and medieval hamlet where the house remains unspoilt by main roads or urban progress.

‘I rashly placed Blandings Castle in Shropshire because my happiest days as a boy were spent near Bridgnorth, overlooking the fact that to get to the heart of Shropshire takes four hours (or did in my time. No doubt British Railways have cut it down a lot),’ Wodehouse once said.
<strong>BUT BY THE time I was growing up near Bridgnorth in the early 1970’s, this evocative, Blandings side of the Midlands had all but been bulldozed by the progressive town planners, cultural vandals and tourist authorities who decided that visitors were really more interested in exploring the Black Country: the polluted, sprawling former industrial wasteland around Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Ironbridge, where the world’s first cast iron bridge was built over the River Severn at Coalbrookdale in 1779. It has been promoted ever since as a pioneering symbol of the Industrial Revolution.

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The fact that the HS2 service will reduce the journey to London to just over an hour from the ‘heart’ of Shropshire is not the only welcome news. I am sure that Wodehouse would also be delighted – as I am – to learn that a decision has recently been made to call the new Birmingham HS2 terminal ‘Curzon Street’ – not even ‘Birmingham Curzon Street’.

Choosing to call the new HS2 terminal ‘Curzon Street’ is an inspired cultural and political move as it suddenly makes Birmingham seem almost glamorous and sophisticated – do I dare say the word ‘smart’? This is something which the city has badly needed ever since being chiefly known in the last few decades for its concrete Bull Ring shopping mall and varieties of Bangladeshi Balti curry.

The proposed new station name is metropolitan and worldly, not provincial. There is nothing ‘second-city’ about ‘Curzon’. Appropriately, the first Lord Curzon – who married two heiresses and became foreign secretary in 1919 under Lloyd George and later Viceroy of India – was one of the best travelled members of any British cabinet – ever. His zest for travel and conquest was partly a reaction against his father who held the view that aristocratic landowners should stay at home and look after their estates land and not go “roaming about all over the world”.

Curzon Street also has a ready-made and unique architectural provenance. The new terminal, for which a design sketch has already been submitted by Sir Terry Farrell, the British architect of the Beijing South Railway Station, should be an extraordinary building as it will be able to incorporate the extant 1838 building of the London to Birmingham railway terminal (above) that used to operate between 1838 and 1854 (and until the 1890s for holiday trains) until the terminal was replaced by the ghastly current Birmingham New Street Station.

Mercifully, this remarkable 1838 building, designed by the architect Philip Hardwick, still stands today, having only been saved from demolition by its Grade 1 listing status. This three storey tall triumphal arched railway entrance – whose fluted pillar design was influenced by a trip to Italy that Hardwick took in 1818-1819 – is the world’s oldest surviving piece of ‘monumental’ railway architecture.

Unable to be razed, the poetic building stands out in the hideous Birmingham urban scrawl like a silver candelabra stick on a Burger King fast-food table. Recently, it has played host to a University of Birmingham student theatre group called ‘Three Bugs Fringe Theatre’. The building is currently ‘unused’ although it is occasionally loaned out by the council for temporary art exhibitions.
PHILLIP HARDWICK WAS the Christopher Wren of Victorian railway architects: one of his other great achievements was the magnificent Greek Revival Euston Arch – a classical twin of his 1838 Curzon Street station terminal – which was demolished by the Tory government in 1962 in an act of cultural atrocity that was doubtless justified at the time as a being an anti-elitist example of cultural progression, misconceived as being in tune – along with Habitat, Cliff Richard and lava lamps – with Britain’s new popular mood.

The 72ft-high Doric gateway (left) which cost £35,000 and stood at the front of the Great Hall of the London Euston terminus, was specifically designed to resemble the towering architrave of a classical temple that stood as a symbol – not unlike the 1779 Ironbridge itself– of the power, ambition and possibilities of rail travel and engineering as a cultural and social force.

In many ways, the main routes of the early railways – which included London to Birmingham, and London to Brighton, were the spiritual successors to the Roman roads that carved up the country and enabled commerce, travel and – most importantly – the proliferation of Roman and Greek ‘values’ across a largely barbarous country, including West Mercia (as the West Midlands was then known).

Which is exactly why Philip Hardwick – who also built the classically inspired Drummond’s Bank (still used today) by the Admiralty Arch and parts of Wellington Barracks by Buckingham Palace – chose a triumphant Doric arch, on a heroic scale that Napoleon would have approved of, to sear his message into the national consciousness. Namely that rail travel was the ‘gateway’ to the future.

Interestingly, the pillars of the classical façade of the Curzon railway terminal are supported by more delicate and elegant Corinthian capitals rather than the sturdy, masculine and less decorative Doric capitals of the 1837 Euston Arch, completed just a year earlier – suggesting perhaps that civilisation was already progressing with the opening of the Curzon station in Birmingham in 1838.

Not even the efforts of John Betjeman could prevent the government ordering cranes to demolish the Euston Arch in 1962. The original gates were given to the collection of the National Railway Museum in York. In 2004, some 4,000 tons of the arch’s stones were found in the muddy bed of the River Lea in East London, where they had been dumped – including the massive architrave stones with the word EUSTON carved out in the original lettering.

With the government’s forthcoming savage arts and cultural budget cuts being announced next week, wouldn’t a better way of spending public Olympic money have been to rescue the Euston Arch from its river bed grave and re-erect it in its former glory as the neo-classical entrance to Euston Station? So when international visitors arrived at the terminal (and nearby Eurostar station at King’s Cross) for the Olympics, they would be greeted by a Greek Revival archway worthy of Britain’s cultural ambition.

But I am guessing that on Wednesday, when the cuts are announced, the last thing on arts minister Ed Vaizey agenda will be undoing the cultural sins of the grandfather – that is former PM Harold Macmillan whose government ordered the destruction. Which is why, as the original stones of the arch sink further into the East End mud, it is even more important for the new Curzon Street Station to be built and re-invented today as a monument to the marriage of very best of classical English railway architecture and a bold and contemporary gateway to the future.

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