Changing London

Discovering Charing Cross – the bustling station on the bend of the river

Seeing the concourse of Charing Cross – London’s fifth busiest station – deserted in broad daylight was surreal in itself. But what made the experience of wandering round here on a Sunday afternoon even more bizarre was the fact that, though no trains were scheduled to leave or depart, automated announcements continued on loop over the loud speaker system.

Passengers (a questionable term given a lack of departures) were asked “please do not leave luggage unattended” and warned that “it may be destroyed by the security services”. Visitors – which could only really refer to those visiting the WH Smith store which was strangely open – were told in the booming voice that their movements were being tracked on CCTV.

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Given that the Southeastern rolling stock outside was going nowhere that day, according to the vast, normally frantically changing indicator board, it was almost as if the station has been opened purely for the group I had joined. I was on a ‘Behind the termini’ tour with Rachel Kolsky – one of London’s best known tour guides and easily recognisable by the colourful flower she waves around above her head to stop visitors from getting lost.

The two hour Charing Cross walk is just one of the stations she features in her series (I have toured around Victoria with her before). And the principal for each one is that most people wizz in and out of stations, so don’t tend to take stock of the wonderful buildings that many boast, or indeed realise that there are interesting things to see in the surrounding area.

Charing Cross for me is particularly interesting as it’s the terminal I commute into and out of London on every working day. I often meet people in the bar adjoining Amba Hotel, a calm place against the hustle and bustle of the Strand, Trafalgar Square and Villiers Street outside.

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Used today by almost 43 million passengers every year (putting it on par with Euston), according to latest figures, it was opened by the South Eastern Railway in 1864 and serves routes to southeast London and Kent. The company joined Southern Railway in 1922 and, fast-forwarding to modern times, it is today used solely by the privatised Southeastern trains.

The area was already called Charing (meaning bend in the river) before the station was built and as a replica of the so-called Eleanor Cross was to be positioned in the forecourt outside, these two factors combined provided the name, according to popular theories. The original cross – one of a series erected by Edward I to mark the funeral route of his Queen, Eleanor of Castile – stood for many years in nearby Trafalgar Square, but was removed by Oliver Cromwell and hidden away.

In the other major stations in London they are adding shops and eateries like there is no tomorrow, but Rachel explained on the tour that Charing Cross is the exception in that here some trading posts have been removed in recent years to create more space on the main concourse. The facilities are pretty limited and restricted to little more than a Burger King, small WH Smith branch, M&S Simply Food and a few other places to buy refreshments. There is nothing fancy on offer here.

The station was designed by Sir John Hawkshaw, who created a single span wrought iron roof to cover the six platforms. And in reality little has majorly changed here since the day the station opened, bar some alterations to the roof in 1905. There was a terrible accident during those works, when six people were sadly killed and the station didn’t re-open till the following year as the whole roof was completely replaced following the incident.

Just a year after the opening of the station came the Charing Cross Hotel (today the Amba Hotel) in 1865, designed by Edward Middleton Barry (who also designed the replica Eleanor Cross for the station forecourt). It was extended in the 1870s and the bridge that allows guests staying in the annex on the other side of Villiers Street to reach their rooms without needing to go outside still remains in place.

Market ambitions

Charing Cross station was built on land previously owned by the Hungerford family (originally of Farleigh Hungerford Castle near Bath) and from the late 1600s home to Hungerford Market. The newly formed Hungerford Market Company had ambitious plans for the venture in the 1830s when an imposing Italianate three-storey construction designed by Charles Fowler (architect of Covent Garden) was erected at considerable cost. On the lower levels was the open fish market, with two tiers of colonnaded galleries on either side. Up the stairs was the fruit and vegetable market.

Given the sloping nature of the site, Fowler created, according to one commentator, the “playful picturesqueness of the group, where court rose above court, galleries above galleries, and where the series of roofs outtopped each other.”

But trying to compete with nearby Covent Garden on fruit and flowers (or indeed Billingsgate on fish) was never going to end well. So when Southeastern began the search for a site for their new terminus, you can imagine that the company was going to be only too happy to cut its losses and sell the land.

On Rachel’s walk, I got an understanding of how fascinating the area surrounding the station is. Charles Dickens worked for a short time in Warrens Blacking Factory here when he was aged 12. Author Rudyard Kipling lived on Villiers Street after he returned from India, before he got married.

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Villiers Street

And the RSA (its full name being the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce) moved its headquarters here in 1774 to a fine building completed after the institution itself was founded. The organisation, which remains in operation here today, put together Britain’s first contemporary art exhibition and also contributed to the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park.

Given the RSA’s location, it’s perhaps no surprise that famous people like Richard Arkwright – the industrialist and inventor who brought considerable innovations to cotton manufacturing and is said to have in the process established the factory system (a piece I wrote on this following a visit to the Derwent Valley provides more details) – lived in the surrounding streets.

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RSA’s headquarters

Examples of the fine Georgian terraced homes built by the Adam brothers in the 18th century remain, but are forgotten by most of the passengers who use Charing Cross station. Sadly some of the houses dating from that period were wiped away in the 20th century when office space in central London became much in demand. Perhaps one of the most eye-catching is the art-deco modern Adelphi building which was used for the civil service for many years and features the names of British cities built into the exterior plasterwork.

Going nowhere

We then ventured onto the Strand – where landmark theatres and hotels line up one after another – before making our way back through Victoria Embankment Gardens to Charing Cross station. Standing on the pedestrian Hungerford Bridges (officially called the Golden Jubilee Bridges) provided a wonderful view down the Thames, with the Southbank Centre immediately across the river. Looking the other way we were immediately in front of Embankment Place, an office block designed by Terry Farrell which was completed in 1991 and was quite literally bolted on to the top of Charing Cross station. It is said to be one of the last examples of modernist architecture.

Back inside the terminal building given that there had been no progress on trains departing, it remained quiet. And so I took two Underground trains and a Southeastern service from London Bridge to get home. How I wish Charing Cross had been at full strength.

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The replica Eleanor Cross

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