At Liverpool St Station
When I was callow and new to London, I once arrived back on a train into Liverpool St Station after the last tube had gone and spent the night there waiting for the first tube next morning. With little money and unaware of the existence of night buses, I passed the long hours possessed by alternating fears of being abducted by a stranger or being arrested by the police for loitering. Liverpool St was quite a different place then, dark and sooty and diabolical – before it was rebuilt in 1990 to become the expansive glasshouse that we all know today – and I had such an intensely terrifying and exciting night then that I can remember it fondly now.
Old Liverpool St Station was both a labyrinth and the beast in the labyrinth too. There were so many tunnels twisting and turning that you felt you were entering the entrails of a monster and when you emerged onto the concourse it was as if you had arrived, like Jonah or Pinocchio, at the enormous ribbed belly.
I was travelling back from spending Saturday night in Cromer and stopped off at Norwich to explore, visiting the castle and studying its collection of watercolours by John Sell Cotman. It was only on the slow stopping-train between Norwich and London on Sunday evening that I realised my mistake and sat anxiously checking my wristwatch at each station, hoping that I would make it back in time. When the train pulled in to Liverpool St, I ran down the platform to the tube entrance only to discover the gates shut, closed early on Sunday night.
It was late August and I was in my Summer clothes, and although it had been warm that day, the night was cold and I was ill-equipped for it. If there was a waiting room, in my shameful fear I was too intimidated to enter. Instead, I sat shivering on a bench in my thin white clothes clutching my bag, wide-eyed and timid as a mouse – alone in the centre of the empty dark station and with a wide berth of vacant space around me, so that I could, at least, see any potential threat approaching.
Dividing the station in two were huge ramps where postal lorries rattled up and down all night at great speed, driving right onto the platforms to deliver sacks of mail to the awaiting trains. In spite of the overarching vaulted roof, there was no sense of a single space as there is today, but rather a chaotic railway station criss-crossed by footbridges, extending beyond the corner of visibility with black arches receding indefinitely in the manner of Piranesi.
The night passed without any threat, although when the dawn came I felt as relieved as if I had experienced a spiritual ordeal, comparable to a night in a haunted house in the scary films that I loved so much at that time. It was my own vulnerability as an out-of-towner versus the terror of the unknowable Babylonian city, yet – if I had known then what I knew now – I could simply have walked down to the Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market and passed the night in one of the cafes there, safe in the nocturnal cocoon of market life.
Guilty, and eager to preserve the secret of my foolish vigil, I took the first tube to the office in West London where I worked then and changed my clothes in a toilet cubicle, arriving at my desk hours before anyone else.
Only the vaulted roof and the Great Eastern Hotel were kept in the dramatic transformation that created the modern station, sandwiched between new developments, and the dark cathedral where I spent the night is gone. Yet a magnetism constantly draws me back to Liverpool St, not simply to walk through, but to spend time wondering at the epic drama of life in this vast terminus where a flooding current of humanity courses through twice a day – one of the great spectacles of our extraordinary metropolis.
Shortly after my night on the station experience, I got a job at the Bishopsgate Institute - and Liverpool St and Spitalfields became familiar, accessed through the tunnels that extended beyond the station under the road, delivering me directly to my workplace. I noticed the other day that the entrance to the tunnel remains on the Spitalfields side of Bishopsgate, though bricked up now. And I wondered sentimentally, almost longingly, if I could get into it, could I emerge into the old Liverpool St Station, and visit the haunted memory of my own past?
A brick relief of a steam train upon the rear of the Great Eastern Hotel.
Liverpool St Station is built on the site of the Bethlehem Hospital, commonly known as “Bedlam.”
Archive images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute