York’s Railway Heritage

As a prelude to the York Conservation Alumni Association’s 2018 AGM on Saturday 14 July 2018, a healthy turnout of almost twenty alumni joined John Ives for a fascinating walking tour of some of York’s leading railway heritage.

Despite the unfortunate timing of the tour to coincide with the sweltering summer heat, the height of the tourist season, impatient traffic, and, worse still, streams of jovial punters heading to York Racecourse for the ‘John Smith’s Cup’, we were clearly in dependable hands.  John Ives is a Conservation Accredited Architect and a partner of York-based PPIY Architects Limited, as well as Chair of the City of York Council’s Conservation Area Appraisal Panel.  He has also been a leading figure in railway heritage for over the 40 years, due to having worked for British Rail’s Architects Department until its demise with privatisation in 1995, and as co-author of the York Station Conservation Development Strategy (2012).

In John’s introductory, and richly-illustrated, presentation, held in a spacious seminar room above Platform 8 of Thomas Presser’s highly impressive Grade II* Railway Station of 1877, it was evident that the Strategy Report of 2012 was a detailed audit of the city’s railway heritage, which spans nearly 200 years and numerous sites.  Who knew, for example, that the city has had three central railway stations in total, or that one of the country’s oldest extant water tower (built in 1839, Grade II listed) is tucked away in one of the station’s car parks!

YCAA alumni
John Ives (centre, to the rear), pointing out the rich history of the Railway Institute building, with the foundations of the Queen Street bridge behind. Source: Duncan Marks.


We subsequently spent an enjoyable couple of hours, in sun and occasional shade, circumnavigating the station to take a closer look at the railway heritage.  This included: the former stable blocks (as the early C19 railway companies used a prodigious number of horses for moving goods and wagons); an enormous laundry service for the railway’s hotels that were strategically placed along the length of the London to Edinburgh line; the damage caused to the railway station in the Baedeker Raid of 29 April 1942, and subsequent hastily-constructed postwar repairs; the Railway Institute building, where canny railway bosses replaced the Railway Tavern – a favourite lunchtime drinking haunt of their workers – with this institute to provide billiard rooms, educational classes, a gymnasium and rifle range; cavernous brick sheds for the locomotive works; fine late-C19 brick-vaulted arches supporting the Queen Street bridge; G.T. Andrew’s enormous spanning arches punctured into the city walls, built to allow trains to arrive at the former station building that stood within the city walls (now the City of York Council offices) – and not to provide returning Roman Legionnaires easy access to the city, as some tourists might otherwise assume if they were to believe the city’s walls are genuinely Roman! ; a guard’s shed at the foot of the city walls, now contextually isolated from its original purpose; bunker provision for railway workers during World War II, when the need to keep the railway lines running was key to the success of the war effort; and, for a finale, the War Memorial by Edwin Lutyens on Station Rise, complete with the names of nearly 3,000 North Eastern Railway (WWI) and L&NER (WWII) employers who died in the World Wars.

Railway War Memorial, York
Edwin Lutyens’ North Eastern Railway War Memorial (1924). Source: Stephen Craven.


The development of two key sites by the City of York Council, and other stakeholders offers the opportunity to better promote such rich railway heritage.  One site is to the east of the railway station, a 45-hectare brownfield called York Central.  It sits above a Roman cemetery and for the last 150 years has been used for various railway purposes, including the site today of the National Railway Museum.  The vision for it is modelled on the recent transformation of the area behind King’s Cross station in London, and offers residential and office space along with an expansion of the museum.  The other site is to the front of the railway station, where plans are afoot to streamline the traffic flow and improve the public realm.

Guard's shed.
A former guard’s shed at the foot of the city walls. Source: David Webdale


Some of the railway heritage will however be lost in these redevelopments, most noticeably the Queen Street bridge, which no longer serves its original function to allow cars to pass above (now removed) railway lines.  Its removal will likely allow for a better appreciation of the city walls, present a ‘gateway’ to the city for those arriving by train, and improve taxi and bus provision in the city.  The facade of the four-storey Railway Institute building will also take some getting used to once the first-floor pedestrian bridge that currently connects with the Queen Street bridge is removed, and the first floor doorway will likely need remodelling.  Likewise, the cute guard’s shed at the foot of the city walls will likely seem even more out of its railway context once the bridge is removed.  Its remoteness no doubt will add to its eerie feel of the uncanny – a small, cute railway cottage seemingly wrongly plonked in the bustle of a modern city; one part C21 art installation, one part urban incarnation of a Hansel and Gretel tale.

Railway Institute
The Railway Institute building, complete with 1st floor pedestrian bridge to the Queen St. bridge, with the former Locomotive Works shed in the background (now a Europcar pick-up / drop-off point). Source: York Press.


Despite the evident rich history of railway development on the York Central site, there is no real driving impetus in the scheme to put the remaining railway structures at the forefront of its masterplan.  What role will they serve?  How prominent will they be when surrounded by up to six-storey residential blocks?  How will they influence the aesthetic of the new development and its landscaping?  It ultimately raises concerns that conservation of the railway heritage could be only tokenistic, left as isolated remnants without a wider narrative to give contextual explanation linking with the site to its railway past.

The walk underlined not only the the importance of railways in York’s modern development, but also just how much of this heritage remains today, albeit dotted here and there and often out of sight to the casual passerby.  The railways became the foremost employer in the city during the C19 and much of the C20, employing nearly 5,000 people by 1901.  From this, great pride was associated between industry and city, as evident in the North Eastern Railway WWI Memorial, standing prominent on a sightline from the Minster directly across Lendal Bridge.

As with many British cities, especially in the north, the transition since the 1980s from an industrial to post-industrial economy has not come without social and economic consequences.  It has, however, left much heritage as testimony to former times of employment and prosperity.  Aside from the former Rowntrees and Terry’s chocolate factories, which are today being converted into residential housing, this rich railway heritage is York’s leading visual acknowledgement of former days when the city was as much built for labour as leisure.  Following the walk, we were left to reflect on the extent York’s workforce takes similar civic pride in its association with Aviva insurance, which is based where the former railway coal drops were, or Europcar, which uses the former locomotive sheds on Queen Street, or the Grand Hotel, which today occupies the former L&NER headquarters.


YCAA is very grateful to John Ives for giving up his time to host the tour, and to LNER for providing free use of a seminar room at York Railway Station for the purpose of our visit.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s