Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Since 1850

Located in what was, until the 1960s, the heart of one of Britain's most important railway stations, this clock has been helping travellers work out how late their trains have arrived - since 1850. Although a local newspaper reporter recently derided Perth station as 'dank and seedy', I think it is a wonderful old collection of buildings. It is certainly in need of investment, it is definitely 'windswept' and often feels icily cold, even in the summer. The place though has an intrigue, a feel, an atmosphere that is in its own way, rather wonderful. Part of that is because unlike most public buildings, Perth station has never had enough money spent on it to effectively kick-over the traces of the past. While many libraries, church-buildings, courts, council offices and so forth have opted for relevance and functionality, the dear old station has never had that option - and so the past seems to be bursting out everywhere.

I look up at the old clock, situated in what is now primarily a car-park for railway employees in order to note the time. Even as I do so I am reminded of the thousands of people who have stood here before me, doing exactly this. Last moments between mothers and their sons departing for wars have been counted here, engine-drivers have looked nervously at its face as it revealed how much time they would have to make up as they assaulted the hard road North. This grand old clock has counted away the lives of Monarchs, Prime-Ministers, Empires, ticket-clerks, passengers, railway-companies, Ministers of Transport and eras of history.

Amidst the rusting beams, the peeling motor-rail stickers, the dripping roofs and the algae slowly crawling across the stonework, lies a thing of great beauty. Perth station was a grand place, and though she struggles by these days her dignity is not completely gone. Enough people come through her portals every day to assure her that she still has some use. Though the days of being overwhelmed with countless travellers, goods and trains have faded into the past, all is not lost. Though it used to be said that night or day, you could always hear a train moving at Perth, now long silences control the hours, punctuated by the mournful sound of litter being blown along the platforms, yet still all is not gone. And those platforms, those enormous, long gracious island platforms built so that mighty trains could queue up to depart for London, Manchester, Birmingham, Inverness, Cardiff, Aberdeen are mocked by the two-car DMUs that say Scotrail, but look like Hornby. They are puny things beneath the still-cavernous roof which deserves mighty engines to cover. But still, the glory of the place has not been completely robbed.

Glimpses of the station, as she was in her youthful vigour, or as she expanded into her late-Victorian adulthood, and on into 20th Century active middle age, frequently interrupt the fallen present. Twice-a-day The London Train creates a stir, the platforms fill with people, the train that comes in is big, noisy, snorting and imposes its presence. The doors don't slide shut at the touch of a button, with cold efficiency but are slammed shut with an honest nostalgic thud. Cases, rucksacks and boxes are manhandled on and off the coaches, and it still has windows that can be opened for waves, tears, smiles, or Brief Encounter farewells. The night sleeper's ghostly appearances conjour up a similar mood in their few moments rest at Perth, before the silence returns. In such moments, the grand old lady stretches herself and remembers what she once was. For all too short a moment, the pomp of the past invades the tawdriness of the present. When it happens, the litter, the grime, the rusty unused tracks, the empty offices, the broken guttering all seem to fade, and instead all manner of beauties come to the fore; the gorgeous yellow sandstone of William Tite's original station frontage, the sun glinting on the tangle of lines and points facing south, the guard's whistle that echoes back over a century and a half, the Victorian latticework cast-iron footbridge, the roar of exhaust and the red tail-light of the departing train disappearing beneath the Edinburgh Road. For those few moments, the platform of Perth Station, spread out before its clock, resembles George Earl's painting of it from 1895, called, "Going South".
In the late 1960s, Perth Station was wounded, but not killed by Beeching's assault. Her wings were clipped, as she lost her slow-trains North that served stations like Murthly, deemed unfit for a railway whose purposes could no longer include social and community considerations. Her limbs were severed as fast lines south to Edinburgh, and North to Aberdeen were cut off or dug-up, and her scenic tourist lines through Highlandman, Crieff, Glen Ogle and Oban were abandoned. She was humiliated as her great canopy, extended in the 1880s to cover a vast area, was cut-back, and her goods station built over.

As the London-train pulls out of the station, the clatter of feet on steps and the gentle rumble of modern wheelie-suitcases mingle with the voices of passengers hurrying for exits, calling cabs, dialling mobiles, summoning lifts. Then with a disorientating abruptness, the silence returns, the emptiness reasserts itself. The grand old lady who has stirred herself to reminisce, tires so soon these days. George Earl's Perth station is snuffed out in an instant, and the Perth station of today appears. In that moment it is almost as if Beeching's proverbial axe has fallen again. Tite's sandstone retreats, the moss and algae reappear, and an empty can of John Smith's Extra Smooth, rolls noisily across the vacant concrete.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I see you have been waxing lyrical again. I wonder if you would like to do a sequel on the romance of Perth bus station. Now there is a draughty place but you can keep warm by running away from the aggressive drunks. Actually, it was Perth Bus Station that put me off the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. I remember standing there in 1985 on a dark, freezing Sunday night waiting for the city link to Edinburgh and reading “Sirens of Titan” on the bus. The two became linked in my mind.