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On Liverpool St Station

July 27, 2020
by the gentle author

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.

I was dressed for summer, 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

25 Responses leave one →
  1. Rosie Barker permalink
    July 27, 2020

    Puts me in mind of WG Sebald’s ‘Austerlitz’ – Liverpool Street Station and Great Eastern Hotel were key sites in this book.

  2. July 27, 2020

    I too recall the old station which always seemed dark and confusing. Only Victoria station rivalled it for a vision of hell. Both have been improved but Liverpool Street is a genuine joy now. Thank you for reminding me of how it used to be.

  3. July 27, 2020

    How beautifully you evoke this memory of your eerie night in the cavernous old station. I love the image of the blocked up tunnel: and you emerging like Timmy Willie from Cromer in your summer clothes and transforming into Johnny Townmouse the next morning ready for your day at the office. It reads like a perfect short story: I wasn’t ready for it to end.

  4. Wendy Lowe permalink
    July 27, 2020

    What an exciting experience you had.  I had similar with a night at London Bridge in the late 1970s.  I was with my sister so we weren’t spooked at all but it was a freezing cold summer night which we spent running up and down the stairs and platforms to keep warm. Imagine our utter despair at 05.52 when it was announced that the first train (our train) had been cancelled!!)  Why are stations always so awfully cold?

    I knew the old Liverpool Street Station very well. I arrived there every morning in 1976-77 from my first flat in Holloway via the tube on my way to my first job in Leadenhall Street opposite the market(Leadenhall market – still a food market back then).  Liverpool Street Station was just as you described it, dark, foreboding and very much a labyrinth.  I didn’t know the Bishopsgate exit had recently  been closed off – what a shame.  I loved the arcade which, I believe, is still there.

  5. Michael Hebbert permalink
    July 27, 2020

    Liverpool Street Station survives today thanks to the Save Liverpool Street Station Campaign, one of several epic conservation struggles organised by the late John Chesshyre during his London years. Apparently their papers are archived across the road at Bishopsgate Institute. I hope they contain some of the giant cardboard railway tickets issued to participants in the fundraising walk one sunny day in 1978 or 1979, which encompassed all twelve of London’s main railway termini, criss-crossing the Thames and beginning and ending at Liverpool Street. We collected a ticket punch hole at each stop.

  6. July 27, 2020

    What a fascinating piece, especially the foot tunnels! I must look next time I pass that way (which I hope will be soon …).

  7. Charlotte Dew permalink
    July 27, 2020

    Thank you for sharing this evocative remembrance. Our nervous younger selves are fascinating to reflect on. I once spent 3 hours in Liverpool Street Station in my late teens, in the mid-1990s, on my way to an interview at the University of East Anglia. The wait was caused by my realising I had the wrong ticket that would not allow peak travel. I needed to board a train after 7pm. It was the first time I had traveled alone, and I felt similarly exposed by the necessity of loitering in the vast and in this instance busy concourse. Now Liverpool Street is my nearest mainline station. And, like you, when walking through during evening rush hour, sometimes my mind returns to the anxious long hours of waiting as my 17-year-old self. McDonalds was briefly a sanctuary, then I paced. Stations, although spaces of transition, are repositories for so many memories.

  8. Susan Ellis permalink
    July 27, 2020

    What memories your article brought back – I remember how noisy, black and cavernous it seemed as a young person in the 60’s & 70’s travelling from north London – but also how exciting! I find today’s station just as exciting – thank you G.A.

  9. Elizabeth Hall permalink
    July 27, 2020

    Such a beautiful account. The long night so cold and scary. The station then so different by night and by day.

    Oh how I would love to walk through that tunnel to find myself again in 1967 as I took this peaceful – daytime – photograph.  

  10. July 27, 2020

    What memories you have evoked GA. At twelve years old I was one of thousands of schoolboy trainspotters. Liverpool Street was a favourite from which I went home to Surrey filthy but happy to the dismay of my mother. Did they have a turntable at the end of the longest platform? No matter. They had the B17 football class. Many named after famous football clubs. I loved those engines. They also had Clans . The last class of passenger engines built with the Britannia’s . They even had filthy little tank engines running suburban trains. With my satchel , Ian Allan trainspotting book, notepad and pencil. Hovis sandwiches. I was set up for the day.
    A time traveller would find old Liverpool Street a hideous filthy aberration. But to trainspotters it had engines confined to East Anglia . None more so than “ the football class”.

  11. John C. Miles permalink
    July 27, 2020

    Thank you for this evocative post! I remember the ‘old’ Liverpool Street well as a place of endless dark recesses and passages snaking away into the gloom; but I found it positively friendly compared to Broad Street Station nearby which, with its mouldering old slam-door trains and decrepit air, resembled a set for a creepy film noir. My favourite memory of Liverpool Street is arriving back into London from a winter’s day trip to Cambridge, having taken in evensong at King’s. I lived in Bethnal Green at the time so it was my local transport hub – but I had been in London for less than six months so I had little knowledge of how different areas were connected!

  12. paul loften permalink
    July 27, 2020

    Liverpool Street Station for me evokes memories of the 50’s ,60’s, 70’s and 80’s. I lived in Stoke Newington , Clapton then moved back to Stoke Newington again. We had to use the mainline stations Stoke Newington and Clapton and had to pass through Liverpool Street at least twice a day. The Communist Party candidate, Monty Goldman duing this time span, would stand on the platform ( no pun ) of building a tube station for the people of Hackney. I thought it a good idea but it never happened . I dont know why , it must have been the cost.
    A few months ago my wife and I happened to walk through Liverpool Street to get to the tube station . I noted the posh shops and cafes and I said to her ” You would not believe what this station was like in the 60’s so dirty but throbbing with life and there was a real atmosphere of Victorian London. Full of Smoke and then they introduced the electric trains it became a bit cleaner . The station staff with their tatty uniforms standing at the gate and the mob jumping off the train in a hurry, with the doors slaming open before it came to a halt . There was an old ornate iron staircase with well worn worn steps leading to another walkway above where the station office and the woman on the loudspeaker was situated. The staircase was painted in the obligatory green but with the rust always showing through . The staircase was a wonder and a mystery as I never went up there in all the times I passed through. They eventually closed it off . It was probably about to fall down.

  13. July 27, 2020

    What a wonderful and atmospheric piece- I too remember the old Liverpool St Station from the 1970’s onward, through going on many cycling Holidays in East Anglia which finally prompted me to settle there just before the station was modernised in 1990. One of the most poignant reminders of the old station is to be found in WG Sebalds’ wonderful novel Austerlitz. In it, a Czech boy comes to England in 1939 on the Kindertransport and and is adopted by a minister and his wife in NorthWales. He has almost no memory of that time, and it is only much later, probably in 1989 when he is living in East London that he visits Liverpool Street station which was in the process of being pulled down. In exploring it’s derelict state he discovers the waiting room where in 1939 he waited, as a very young child for his new foster parents.The children had been put on one of the last boats leaving mainland Europe, landed at Felixtowe then were taken by train to Liverpool St Station. An unbearably poignant story and a fitting part of the rich history of this wonderful station.

  14. July 27, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, so glad you got that job at the Bishopgate Institute making you able to share its treasures of London life with us through the following decades.

  15. July 27, 2020

    I seem to remember wonderful photos by ?John Grey. It’s so much more intimate that the other ‘grand’ termini of London, except Marylebone

  16. Jill permalink
    July 27, 2020

    Thanks for that affectionate tribute to Liverpool Street. It is our gateway to London and I love the sense of anticipation as the train passes through the east end and into the now smart station. I just hope we can be brave enough to do that journey again before too long. Love the Cotmans too!

  17. July 27, 2020

    Just like Rosie above, I read yr post & immediately thought of that moment of revelation in Austerlitz. I rushed to the bookshelf, but someone has borrowed my copy. The way I remember it is that the past comes flooding back to Austerlitz when the sidewall of Liverpool Street station is knocked down and he sees Broad Street Station behind it. Then he remembers arriving as a child on the Kindertransport. Liverpool Station was his everyday reality; Broad Street Station was the doorway to the past.
    Broad Street station, ignominiously destroyed, was the most wonderful station, full of winding stairs, secret passages (through from Liverpool St Station and other places too) There were high up balconies with gothic windows edged with blue mosaic from which one had wonderful gloomy glimpses down into Liverpool Street station. It’s high walk ways were bejewelled with decoration! I and my little daughter used to scamper around the grimy heights peeping over balustrades.
    Someone told me that they had to wait for John Betjeman to die before they could get away with its destruction.
    At the same time they ripped up the railway line to Dalston Junction – and now look! the silly fatheads have had to rebuild it (with dreary concrete stations), because London needed that line. In those long-ago days (the 70s? the 80s?) planners thought London was shrinking away, with its ageing population and dwindling birth rate so they could knock down stations and get rid of schools.
    Please, dear Gentle Author, can you show us pictures of Broad Street Station too?

  18. gkbowood permalink
    July 27, 2020

    I think the brink relief of the steam train must be close to platform 9 3/4, since you can just see the train approaching…

  19. Sally Jeffery permalink
    July 27, 2020

    A desolate corner of the old station, under some stairs near the taxi ramp, is fixed in my mind as the location of the scene in Ken Loach’s 1966 BBC play Cathy Come Home in which Cathy’s children are wrenched from her by police. It may not have been filmed there, but the place and the play had some resonance for me at the time, so it’s always stuck.

  20. July 27, 2020

    I remember the old Liverpool Street from the 1970’s when I used to travel each day from Cambridge to my architect office in Covent Garden. In the mornings I used to stop at the little coffee shop on the pedestrian bridge overlooking the concourse for a capuccino and sit on the terrace and watch the string of slam door commuter trains from Essex arrive and disgorge their passengers before descending to the Underground to my office.
    In the evenings I was typically just in time to catch the 1812 to Cambridge and like my father would like to catch the train as it was moving, sprinting down the platform and opening the door as the train gathered speed. A family tradition that unfortunately is no longer possible with guard operated doors.
    Other memories include taking the Boat Train to Harwich en route to Holland. A late night departure from Liverpool Street timed to coincide with a midnight sailing at Harwich Parkeston Quay. The clientele were very different from those travelling to Dover or Folkestone, mainly Dutch and German travellers and migrant workers.
    In the steam days Liverpool Street was distinguished from other London termini by the sounds of the Westinghouse brake system that caused the tank engine locomotives to pant while at rest after bringing their commuter trains into the station.

  21. July 27, 2020

    Thank You for these Wonderful Vintage Pictures!!????????

  22. Dr Jonathan van Halbert permalink
    July 28, 2020

    | am so glad you discovered the works of John Sell Cotman.. He was a wonderful

    watercolour painter.. Every thing in our life has a purpose.. and a destiny..

    I have been there done that. When I missed the last train I spent the night on the

    lonely platform only to discover that my companions were delightful Hedgehogs!!

    But then that was in the 1970’s …….

  23. Martin ling permalink
    July 28, 2020

    In the 1970s we used to travel up from Romford for exciting nights in the west end for both punk rock and jazz funk nights. The last train home from Liverpool Street was at around 1.27am, so we often would not bother rushing back and after a walk through the city arrive around 2 or 3 O’clock and kill time till the ‘milk train’ left around 4.30am full of other Essex clubbers. There used to be a booth where you could record a short vinyl record, which we did but which I sadly lost.

  24. ALISON ENGLEFIELD permalink
    July 28, 2020

    What a tantalisingly accurate description of those sooty days. Took me right back to the smells of railway stations past…I saw a lot of them as my dad was a train driver. Thanks for the wonderful step back in time and for your beautifully described memories.

  25. Gavin Maclennan permalink
    February 22, 2024

    Excellent and evocative article.Liverpool St station in steam days was wonderful, a smoky cathedral of chiaroscuro light and dark, superbly Gothic and suggestive.

    How its current manifestation can be described as a ‘joy’ is beyond me. It has none of the dark powerful atmosphere of yesteryear. It’s just another silly shiny glorified shopping centre, paying homage to the jackdaw frivolity and endless greed of today’s society.

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