Monday, 5 April 2010

The Good Life Victoria

There’s a shop at the entrance to Manchester Victoria called the Good Life Victoria. A sign in the window says ‘We don’t sell cigarettes or phone cards’. It no longer sells anything else either. Polystyrene shapes rest on its dusty shelves next to a faded Mars sign and someone’s been sick on its steps. Unfortunately, it’s not out of place. Victoria is full of empty shop units, and the remaining few – a tailor, and a barbers called The Manchester Cutters with footprints on its thin, handpainted wooden sign (a far cry from the Toni & Guy at its London namesake) which also offers umbrellas at £2 a pop – now, there's a real service in the rainy city, plus a temporary hot dog stall, cling on as if quaint relics from a bygone age.

In his BBC2 programme, Great British Railway Journeys, the former politician Michael Portillo travelled the historic rail routes of the country following the writing of Manchester-based railway timetable pioneer George Bradshaw. Whilst stopping in Manchester, he compared Victoria with Manchester’s main station, brighter, brasher Piccadilly. Piccadilly, he noted admiringly, had been ‘made to look like an airline terminal’. He said: “Piccadilly has none of the olde-world charm of Victoria. This says I’m glassy, I’m classy and brand new.”

In November 2009, Manchester Victoria was named England’s worst station in a report which asked rail users to rate stations for customer satisfaction (for some reason, the London stations, including London Victoria, a cold, vast, confusing muddle of people, queues leading into forever and contradictory signposting, attached to a big shopping mall, don't come in for much criticism).

The report, Better Rail Stations by Chris Green and Sir Peter Hall, describes the importance of stations acting ‘as the gateway to both town and railway’, saying ’they leave passengers with their lasting impressions of both’. The report goes on to set out its vision for the future of Britain’s railway terminals; they should ‘evolve into community hubs, providing local services such as small supermarkets, collection points for undelivered mail, sub-post offices and community services’. This will be based on commercial operations: ‘stations will be considered less as a convenience store and more as a shopping destination in their own right.’ As the report states, however, ‘a dilapidated station is not going to attract strong high street brands or an upmarket store’.

Victoria may be dilapidated, but it certainly has glamour lacking from Piccadilly and fitting for a station which was once one of the busiest in Britain. It’s still served by antique wooden ticket counters and interior and exterior alike are adorned with decoration like vines and crowns. Tiles in blue and green announce what were once the book stall, the information stall and the left luggage pool – now adapted for different purposes. The restaurant and bar, packed with families on weekend afternoons, have a high, domed ceiling and stained glass windows, and plaster wreathes and mirrors grace grand red walls. It’s spacious, imposing and classic – although photos on the walls remind of the new Manchester waiting outside – all glass and steel like the Beetham Tower and, indeed, the Piccadilly extension.

Another reason I love Victoria is its ambience – the pride with which the historic building relays its destinations and routes makes every journey feel like an adventure. Tiled destination markers decorated with frilly red ironwork on the outside of the building announce towns and cities to the north and east of Manchester, including Leeds, Harrogate, Bradford, York, Bury and Newcastle (although in some cases nowadays you may have to go to Piccadilly instead or take the tram, as with Bury). A shell sits atop the corner of the building as if pointing the direction for daytrips to the sea – Scarborough, Southport, Blackpool. Inside, red lines criss-cross a magnificent tiled map* that takes up one of the walls in the entrance showing the routes offered up until 1923 by the now defunct Lancashire & Yorkshire railway, with further options to carry on to Ireland or the continent on steamboats operated by the rail company.

Northern Rail has plans to expand and improve the station for the twenty first century, with a £30m refurbishment over the next four years, including a much needed new roof as well as new shops and platforms. It would be hard to begrudge the facilities the report recommends, like pharmacies or car rental, but I’m not sure I’d want Victoria to look like a bland airline terminal – ie, full of overpriced clothes shops and tacky souvenirs, pervaded by an overpowering smell of perfume, yet often hard to find things you actually need.

On a recent visit to the WH Smith museum in Newtown, Powys, Wales, I enjoyed reading about how the chain expanded by bidding for contracts for bookstalls on railway routes in the early days of mass travel. In 1848, WH Smith (now ubiquitous in railway stations and airports) won the contract for the London & North Western and Midland railway services (in Manchester, it beat Bradshaw & Blacklock, Bradshaw being the aforementioned George Bradshaw). It had outlets at stations on the railway’s routes, including Victoria, until 1905, when higher rents meant it was hard to make a profit and Smiths started moving to station approaches before eventually expanding onto highstreets.

As well as ensuring London daily newspapers were distributed around the country, a feature of these bookstalls was a lending library; at a time of prohibitively expensive fiction, passengers could borrow a book from any station and return it at any other terminal in the country (something which ceased only in 1891 with improved services from county libraries). To make the journey more comfortable, Smiths also offered rugs, footwarmers, candles, playing cards and maps.

It struck me, that rather than getting McDonald’s or KFC in to Victoria, it could start with some basics like bins, FREE toilets (unlike Piccadilly, where one has to grapple around for change whilst holding armfuls of luggage), payphones or power sockets for charging mobile phones, warm, comfortable, quiet waiting rooms and city centre maps. With libraries apparently in decline and being shut down across the country, why not bring back lending libraries at train stations, alongside post offices (as recommended by the report) and modern facilities like internet terminals and visitor information?

* The only other map I have ever seen that is anything like it is a far smaller tiled route map of the North Eastern railway at Scarborough train station, which also shows the locations of castles and abbeys.

1 comment:

Paul Capewell said...

Alright, you've convinced me to pay a visit. It's been long enough.

Also, interesting to read about WH Smith's history of lending books out. Nice.