“All life's serious journeys involve a railway terminus”: Europe is cleaning up its destination stations

Antwerp Centraal, 2009. Image: Getty.

“All life's really serious journeys involve a railway terminus,” remarked Stephen Fry, playing Oscar in the film Wilde and riffing neatly on The Importance of being Earnest.

He’s right: there’s nothing quite like stepping off a train and knowing you’ve arrived, especially beneath a full-on nineteenth-century railway cathedral arch. And yet, some of Europe’s finest stations need a bit of TLC, while the areas around them are often a bit of a dump (as anyone who’s strolled out of Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof down Kaisterstrasse knows).

Since the turn of the century, however, railway companies across Europe have been polishing up the jewels in the ferrovial crown, and work is well underway on the centrepiece. Paris Gare du Nord: Europe’s busiest station, this machine for moving people serves 2,100 trains and 700,000 travellers every day.

 

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I first encountered Gare du Nord as an Erasmus student, back in 2003, with my first experience of proper, scary harassment on the escalators there. In 2006, my laptop got stolen there when leaving the Thalys. In 2007, when Eurostar’s London terminus moved to St. Pancras, a gleaming collection of fancy shops, craft ale bars and the longest champagne bar in Europe, poor old Gare du Nord looked even more tatty by comparison.

Back in January, Harry Mount called it a “dump,” in the Spectator, “haunted by lost souls, homeless, drunk and begging.” 

But now it’s all change at the terminus. Much like the gloomy narrative about Marine Le Pen’s success in French politics in recent months actually turned out to be overdone, Gare du Nord is getting refurbished and the first bits look as sharp as Emmanuel Macron’s Presidential portrait. The first stage of works is due to finish in 2019, but already they’ve smartened up the RER platforms, opened a ton of new shops and got a Michelin-starred chef to open a Brasserie (so #onbrand for France).

The new Eurostar business lounge is complete, and a complete delight, as well. There’s a superb view for a bit of high-speed train spotting (GdN has trains to four countries other than France) as well as a fancy gin corner. This in turn has freed up plenty of space in the main lounge and boarding area. But it’s just the start: I’ve had a peek at what comes next, and it looks very interesting.

Gare du Nord is the biggest and oldest of Paris’ stations, but it’s been mired in drama since the start. It doesn’t have a large forecourt like most grand C19th stations because of a personal conflict between 19th-century Barons Rothschild and Haussmann, which has made it particularly challenging to extend the station halls as demand grew. Gares et Interconnexions, the arm of SNCF in charge of the works, says the challenge is to “push the walls in this constrained space and modernise the station without losing the character of its listed architecture”.

That means a complete reworking of the surrounding area and making more sense of the links with neighbouring Gare de l’Est and Magenta, the underground station for local trains on the RER E line. The area out the front, with its much-abused drop-off point, will be entirely pedestrianised, so sitting out the front of Terminus Nord with a glass of something chilled will become even more appealing. The “historic, recently-restored, front elevation, will take a real aesthetic and symbolic place in this newly-calmed forecourt which will attract restaurant terrasses, events and an urban and social life which will benefit the neighbourhood”.

An impression of the new Gare du Nord. Image: Wilmotte.

Destination stations aren’t about “if you build it, they will come” so much as “people are going to use this travel hub anyway so we might as well make it as attractive as possible”. This usually involves “wow factor” architecture, rethinking the user experience and sticking in a load of shops, without the airport constraint that you’re obliged to go through them, Temple-Grandin style.

Look at Antwerp Centraal: designed by Louis Dela Censerie because King Leopold II felt that previous plans weren’t grand enough, this railway cathedral opened in 1905 and has been an icon ever since. In the sixties, it was nearly demolished (like Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple, knocked down for an office block) but in 2009 it was restored to more than its former glory.

Previously a terminus, a tunnel underneath means high speed trains can go through from Paris to Amsterdam; a whole new station entrance at the other end means it’s less crowded and easier to navigate. In February 2009, Newsweek named it the world’s 4th most beautiful station. And the shops? Darling, it has its own diamond gallery (and some cracking waffle stands).


The shopping thing is particularly helpful in Germany, where the Ladenschlussgesetz means shopping on Sunday is generally a big fat nein unless you’re in a railway station, petrol station or airport. Having slagged off Frankfurt HbF earlier, it does have one of the best multi-language bookshops I know – right there in the station. But Germany’s premier Bahnhofserlebnis must be Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Opened in 2006, it has an incredible multi-level design – imagine a collaboration between MC Escher and Hornby – and serves 300,000 passengers a day. It’s light, airy and has outstanding signage – a railway cathedral for the 21st century.

Destination stations aren’t all about fast trains and fine dining, however. Refurbishments usually also improve disabled access, add plenty of new bike parking, and better links with local public transport, meaning fewer cars in city centres.

In the ten years since its opened, a Deutsche Bahn spokesman says, Berlin HbF has added improved information system for disabled and blind people, switched its lighting to LED technology, and added over 1000 new lockers. They have also added more than 30 new clocks – as the German saying goes, punctuality is the politeness of kings.

As CityMetric noted recently, “the stench of urine that greets you on leaving Gare du Nord” is far too many people’s first impression of Paris. It’s high time that changed – with the first stages of the refurbishment complete, we can’t wait to see how the finished project looks.

 
 
 
 

Where actually is South London?

TFW Stephen Bush tells you that Chelsea is a South London team. Image: Getty.

To the casual observer, this may not seem like a particularly contentious question: isn’t it just everything ‘under’ the Thames when you look at the map? But despite this, some people will insist that places like Fulham, clearly north of the river, are in South London. Why?

Here are nine ways of defining South London.

The Thames

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

It’s a curvy river, the Thames. Hampton Court Palace, which is on the north bank of the river, is miles south of the London Eye, on the south bank. If the river forms a hard border between North and South Londons, then logically sometimes North London is going to be south of South London, which is, to be fair, confusing. But how else could we do it?

Latitude

You could just draw a horizontal line across a central point (say, Charing Cross, where the road distances are measured from). While this solves the London Eye/Hampton Court problem, this puts Thamesmead in North London, and Shepherd’s Bush in South London, which doesn’t seem right either.

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

And if you tried to use longitude to define West and East London on top of this, nothing would ever make sense ever again.

The Post Office

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some people give the Post Office the deciding vote, arguing that North and South London are defined by their postcodes. This does have some advantages, such as removing many contentious areas from the debate because they’re either in the West, East or Central postcode divisions, or ignoring Croydon.

But six of the SW postcodes are north of the river Thames, so we’re back to saying places like Fulham and Chelsea are in south London. Which is apparently fine with some people, but are we also going to concede that Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are South London landmarks?

Taken to the extreme this argument denies that South London exists at all. The South postcode region was abolished in 1868, to be merged into the SE and SW regions. The S postcode area is now Sheffield. So is Sheffield in South London, postcode truthers? Is that what you want?

Transport for London

Image: TfL.

At first glance TfL might not appear to have anything to add to the debate. The transport zones are about distance from the centre rather than compass point. And the Northern Line runs all the way through both North and South London, so maybe they’re just confused about the entire concept of directions.

 

Image: TfL.

But their website does provide bus maps that divide the city into 5 regions: North East, South East, South West, North West and the Centre. Although this unusual approach is roughly speaking achieved by drawing lines across and down the middle, then a box around the central London, there are some inconsistencies. Parts of Fulham are called for the South West region, yet the whole of the Isle of Dogs is now in North East London? Sick. It’s sick.

The Boundary Commission

One group of people who ought to know a thing or two about boundaries is the Boundary Commission for England. When coming up with proposals for reforming parliamentary constituencies in 2011, it first had to define ‘sub-regions’ for London.

Initially it suggested three – South, North East, and a combined North, West and Central region, which included Richmond (controversial!) – before merging the latter two into ‘North’ and shifting Richmond back to the South.

In the most recent proposal the regions have reverted to North Thames and South Thames (splitting Richmond), landing us right back where we started. Thanks a bunch, boundary commission.

The London Plan

Image: Greater London Authority.

What does the Mayor of London have to say? His office issues a London Plan, which divides London into five parts. Currently ‘South’ includes only Bromley, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth, while the ‘North’ consists of just Barnet, Enfield, and Haringey. Everywhere else is divvied into East, South or Central.

While this minimalist approach does have the appeal of satisfying no-one, given the scheme has been completely revised twice since 2004 it does carry the risk of seismic upheaval. What if Sadiq gets drunk on power and declares that Islington is in East London? What then?

Wikipedia

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The coordinates listed on the South London article lead to Brockwell Park near Herne Hill, while the coordinates on the North London article lead to a garden centre near Redbridge. I don’t know what this means, so I tried to ring the garden centre to see if they had any advice on the matter. It was closed.

Pevsner Guides

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

Art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner might seem an unlikely source of help at this juncture, but we’ve tried everything else. And the series of architectural guides that he edited, The Buildings of England, originally included 2 volumes for London: “The Cities of London and Westminster”, and “everything else”. Which is useless.

But as his successors have revised his work, London has expanded to fill 6 volumes: North, North West, East, The City, Westminster, and South. South, quite sensibly, includes every borough south of the Thames, and any borough that is partly south of the Thames (i.e. Richmond). And as a bonus: West London no longer exists.

McDonald’s

I rang a McDonald’s in Fulham and asked if they were in South London. They said no.

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