Industrial Past

Where Queen Victoria stayed: visiting Crewe’s pioneering railway hotel

It doesn’t take long once you’ve walked through the doors of Crewe Arms Hotel that you clock its railway connections. In reception, there’s a screen showing departures for the vast mainline station across the road, while the wall opposite the check-in desk has a black and white picture of a steam train. But it’s when you head upstairs to the bedrooms where you can hear the booming tannoy announcements about passengers being monitored by CCTV and information on delayed services that you realise just how close the platforms are.

While there are plenty of surviving and thriving railway hotels around the country, the red-brick Crewe Arms has a special claim. Built in 1837, it is said (if you ignore the 1880 inscribed on front of the building), to be the very first of these pioneering establishments which provided accommodation for travellers. Crewe may seem to some an unlikely place for the launch of the network, but when you see today the scale of the station, with its 12 platforms and the vast number of connections offered from high speed services, you realise that it grew over the years to become a sizeable junction.

Owned by the railway until 1969, Crewe Arms Hotel is today part of the Best Western franchised and has been modernised over the years, so bar the railway features I’ve already mentioned, much of the past has been swept away. But I still found it fascinating that I was following in the footsteps of weary travellers arriving here and getting a night’s sleep in before continuing their journeys to London and the south or Scotland and the north, the next day.

Of all the visitors to have stayed at the Crewe Arms over the years, Queen Victoria has probably been the most famous guest. When the Royal checked in on her way to Scotland, an underground tunnel (now bricked up) was built to link the hotel to the station to provide her with privacy and protection from the weather. And a (surviving) marble fireplace, with a bust of Victoria, was installed in the lounge. Other notable visitors have range from members of visiting sports teams and those performing at the town’s Lyceum theatre.

Surving marble fireplace, with a bust of Victoria, which was installed when the Queen visited the Crewe Arms Hotel

On the ground floor there are today two restaurants / bar areas and a number of conference rooms. Until 1983 there was a ballroom on the first floor, which held a number of events, but then it was decided that adding more bedrooms would be a more profitable. It was very quiet when I visited to the extent that on a Saturday night only one dining table was occupied and a young couple were having drinks, but despite only seemingly having a few guests it’s actually a pleasant hotel.

But despite my praise for Crewe Arms I still think it could make more of its history. Quite what the ‘1650’ catering brand relates to, I’m not sure. If they need a date to pin the restaurant and bar to then perhaps ‘1837’ would be more appropriate, relating to the year the station and (probably) the hotel both opened.

Railway town

Had it not been for the railway, Crewe wouldn’t exist as a town. Until the Grand Junction Railway (GJR) decided build a station and locomotive works here in the 1830s, it was just a village, with some 70 residents, surrounded by fields. To accompany the development a new town was laid out by the company’s chief engineer Joseph Locke and by 1871 its population had reached 40,000.

The GJR supported the range of amenities for the new Crewe, including the building and upkeep of Christ Church, as well as a doctor’s surgery for workers and a Cheese Market (now Crewe Indoor Market). They also donated land for a park, Queen’s Park, to be opened.

Crewe Railway Works, which was opened by the GJR, turned out its first locomotive in 1843 and five years later it was employing one thousand people. Mergers were good for the site because it resulted in four companies concentrating their engine building in the town. As more production was transferred to the site, the workforce grew – reaching 20,000 at its height. And other companies were attracted to set up operations in Crewe as well.

Today, some industry remains but much has been wiped out and much of the town (particularly the centre) seems drab and depressing. The travel writer Bill Bryon went as far as describing it in Notes from a Small Island as “the armpit of Cheshire”. And to be fair, he has a point. I visited the main shopping area on a Saturday afternoon and it seemed pretty quiet. Many units were boarded up and those that were trading did so from dreary post war concrete buildings, set in dingy precincts.

Crewe town centre

Part of the problem I think is that in recent years an out-of-town retail Grand Junction Retail Park has sprung up between the station and the town. When most Crewe Works was cleared in the mid 1980s, a Tesco Extra, other shops and amenities such as a health centre were built on the vacated land (Bombardier does still maintain a presence in Crewe, focusing largely on general maintenance and repairing damaged stock, but the operations are a shadow of what they used to be). The stores are actually quite good (I went in some myself), but as with elsewhere in the country they’ve sucked the life out of the town centre.

But could things be on the up for Crewe? I picked up a copy of the weekly Crewe Chronicle which announced in one of its lead stories that the town was “ready to shine” – in 2027 that is, once the first new HS2 trains stop at the new high speed hub, connecting Birmingham, Manchester and London. While the newspaper warned that it wasn’t the “pancea for regeneration and investment in Crewe it is a gilt-edged opportunity to improve infrastructure, attract better paid skilled jobs, quality and affordable housing, a considerably improved ‘quality of life’ for local and incoming families”.

Railway heritage

The town may no longer be the industrial hub that it once was, but the past has not been forgotten. Crewe Heritage Centre was opened by the Queen in 1987 on the former site of the London, Midland and Scotland Railway yard, part of Crewe Works, as a means of charting 150 years of history. While there is a heavy focus on the railways, the displays cover a range of other topics of town life ranging from pubs (of which there are many) to churches.

Only surviving full-sized Advanced Passenger Train is at Crewe Heritage Centre

When I visited there was a model railway exhibition being held in the main hall, with layouts depicting scenes from all over the world. Enthusiasts (largely middle and old age men!) were focused on concentrating intently on carefully shunting trains into their depots. But almost hidden away behind the models, I also enjoyed looking at some of the paintings from the regular collection: engines being built in the Crewe works and the hustle and bustle of passengers heading for their trains at the town’s station during the age of steam.

Most of the activity at the Heritage Centre seemed to be focused on the old North Junction signal box, which contained aged machinery and a popular cafe, from which the smell of chips cooking wafted around the whole site. Upstairs train spotters were gathered on the open air viewing platform, poised with their cameras ready to capture trains heading along the Westcoast main line.

Inside old North Junction signal box

I also enjoyed having a nose around the carriages of the only surviving full-sized Advanced Passenger Train (APT) which brought pioneering tilting technology. Introduced in 1981, the Intercity service achieved the fastest ever journey time on the Euston to Glasgow route. But the fleet suffered a spate of technical problems and was never really a commercial success, not even seeing the decade out. The technology was however the starting point for developing Virgin’s Pendolino trains. Boarding the APT parked in Crewe was like a blast from the past, with seats covered in tartan and bitter on the pumps in the dated buffet car.

For children the miniature railway seemed to be the most popular attraction. But this wasn’t just something that had been installed to pull in the visitors; it originated from when the site was old works and were largely demolished in the 1980s. The railway was used to transport raw materials and finished goods around the various areas. Now it is keeping people of all ages entertained, as well as helping us remember the important contribution Crewe has made to the business of travel.

Former Cheese Market (now Crewe Indoor Market)

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