"Please inform a member of staff if you see something that doesn't look right” urges the station tannoy. Well; there’s a bloke with a mullet, a woman reading the Sun, and a blue suit with brown shoes. On Crewe station, with a valid ticket, anything goes. it is a multi cultural centre; the gateway between ‘here’ and ‘anywhere’.
Railway stations were designed as 'cathedrals of the new humanity at the centre where all converges’(Gautier). A temple for train-spotters, and asylum for the homeless, Crewe was the gravitational end point to wander at will until the ticket barriers were put in place, and the numbers of homeless arriving at Crewe housing office halved.
Most stations, enclosed within shopping malls, or detached from the communities they serve, are between places; pausing, lingering, spaces; like airport duty free lounges, but without the tax-break. Budget wary travellers and train-spotters surreptitiously sip flasks and nibble foil wrapped baps, because this is an exclusive place to those who can afford to travel by train, and pay double for tea, leaving the indigenous townsfolk sat outside in interminable traffic jams.
Once we have paid to enter the station, it rises above the vulgarity of brazen commerce, with few distracting advertising hoardings. This allows the visitor to enjoy some of the best architecture of Crewe; none of which was created by the six million pounds was thrown away in 2012 to transform the station into an 'iconic 21st century gateway' to showcase the best of Crewe and the North West. What we got was a mundane backdoor and another car park. What we liked was the Victorian drinking fountain 'for ye dogs'; the moss on the arches, the honest industrial roof that allows you to hear the rain, feel the wind; to you know that you are somewhere. 145 miles from London, and 20 years behind, it has none of Euston’s modern clutter of screens selling tropical beaches and rival cars. For years, Euston’s spartan marble concourse was only dotted with contemplative passengers waiting for the clackety-clackety-clackety-clack of the mechanically turning destination boards that were the starting guns to the race to their platform. Now it is a thinly disguised shopping mall.
Islanders of Crewe see the station as a privileged betrayal of town loyalty, the traitor's gate to 'elsewhere'. They forget that uniquely in Britain, the station begat the town, and it owes its child Crewe nothing. Rumours of a relocation sent the town into panic, but the stately, sedate, station parent remained unmoved, while the young town centre is abandoned. Crewe has lost the cultural history of the railways, but at the station punctuality, respect, and order still rule. On the road just outside, drivers abuse and push each other to filter into one lane, but once passed the ticket barrier, customs change: the queue to board a crowded train is politely choreographed.
Until the barriers were installed, the platforms were witness to the grief of goodbyes and the happiness of hallos as friends, families and lovers met and left each other. Now it’s a rushed handover of bags with the car engine running on the double yellows outside. Sharing the space with strangers down on the platform does not make it less lonely, solitude can be magnified by the closeness of others, but at least in this private public space we are allowed to talk to each other on acceptable subjects; delays, destinations and, if pushed, dress.
Generally we don’t talk about ourselves, we handed in our identity for a ticket to hide. We are directed as a mass, there is no individuation. When there is a delay, we might complain as customers, but we secretly enjoy the passive submission of the passenger to the fates of the timetable. Only the mad or the middle class act as train criers, yelling their most intimate secrets and lies to invisible confessors on smartphones. "yes, I'm at the door of the office now". "Sorry I can't I'm in Sardinia". "No, he is not with me now".
Any chatter stops for the two human announcers, Bradshaw's dub poets; a man eating cake and a woman singing stations in a Welsh whisper. One very early dark morning she had to announce a delay, and all the commuters gazed up at her tannoy with avuncular forgiving smile. They cut Mr. Kipling no slack.
Will there be room for these characters in the new High Speed 2 superhub? Will it still be Crewe's station, or just another anonymous shopping mall? Decisions are being made now. If Crewe has lost the battle for its retail town centre, it has to decide now to fight for its soul; the railway station.