top of page
  • gardenhistorygirl

'Beautifying railways for the weary traveller'

Updated: Mar 31, 2023


'Flowers Before Fares' from 'Funny Folks' magazine. Courtesy Dr David Turner on Twitter.


In 1884, the Midland Railway company started a 'best- kept station garden' competition for its staff. The satirical publication Funny Folks was, however, somewhat cynical, publishing the above cartoon where the Station Master says to his colleague: “No, we can't let the excursionists on the platform until we’ve syringed the plants in the hot house.” The 'syringing' of the plants with water being necessary to remove the soot and grime produced by the railway of course - but if plants had actually been kept this way, I don't think they would have lasted very long!


I'm retired now but, having been a railway commuter for some 40 years, the best I could usually hope for at my local station were a few summer hanging baskets, and perhaps a large planter or two of evergreen shrubs, often somewhat sadly neglected. After decades of nationalisation, our railways have been back in the hands of individual companies for some years, and they are responsible for the majority of our railway stations, while Network Rail maintains the 20,000 miles of track, together with the 10 million trees growing alongside them regulated by a 'vegetation management process'.


Edwardian rail travellers as depicted in a 'Midland Railway of England' poster


However, in the days of steam, when railways were an important mode of transport for the Victorian and Edwardian public across the country (before the drastic 'Beeching' cuts of the early1960s), “beautifying” the railways, and using the miles of empty land alongside the tracks for more practical horticulture and allotments, was a subject of much discussion in the horticultural press - as well as satirical comment! So I’ve been delving into articles and readers’ letters in horticultural magazines from the 1870’s to the1920’s, regarding the planting of railway embankments, cuttings, and the decoration of stations.


Plants at the beginning of the Railways


But first, back to the beginning of the railways: in the early 19th century, as steam-powered railways spread across the UK, the importance of establishing clear boundaries between the railway and the adjacent land was recognised early on, and The Railway Regulation Act of 1842 stipulated that public access to the railway had to be restricted on safety grounds. The Act therefore required the railway companies to maintain fences along their lines, although in more rural areas thorny hedges, often hawthorn, were planted and left to form an impassable barrier - thus providing huge, mostly empty, boundaries or corridors alongside the railways


According to an article on the National Railway Museum’s website, ‘Creating Havens for Plant Life’, newly built sections of railway, and these corridors, were quickly invaded by couch grass which, while binding and consolidating the freshly turned soil, created something of a fire hazard due to sparks and cinders from the engines. This created the need for periodic clearing or controlled burning along the track, although plants such as bracken and rosebay willow herb managed to survive these extreme measures. Despite this clearing, and as noted in an article in The Times in 1908 entitled ‘Wildflowers of the Railway’, many plants could be seen all year around: “The fringes of the line have all the contrast and variety of each type of surrounding country, and are bedecked with a special concentration of the flowers which are native to each soil.


Engraving of Oxford ragwort from William Baxter’s ‘British Phaenogamous Botany’ of 1834


The railway boundaries also provided means for such native, as well as invasive, plant species to spread. Oxford ragwort (Senecio Squalidus) is one weed particularly associated with the expansion of the railways. Originally from Sicily, it’s thought that the plant escaped from the Oxford Botanic Garden, growing around the city before spreading out along the railways.


Weeds and invasive plant species aside, the railway companies themselves initially confined their planting efforts to a few hedges and trees alongside their tracks, and sowing broom and gorse on embankments mostly, I presume, to stabilise them. However, they did rent land adjacent to stations to employees for gardens and allotments, and sometimes provided a house to their station masters who had significant social standing in their communities. (Railway employees often living close to the railway or station during this period.)


Making the effort


‘The Stationmaster’ at Kingscote Station, Mr William George May Mead, photographed by his son, Len, in the early 1920s. Courtesy Bluebell Railway


As Gertrude Jekyll would later write in her article ‘Cottage and Railway Station Gardens’, published in The Garden in 1924, she considered station masters to be “public benefactors” for providing gardens and platforms edged with borders of flowers and shrubs to, as she put it, “refresh the weary traveller”. A station master was, indeed a man worthy of respect in his local community, and was expected to set an example to both passengers and staff – thus the uniform, as can be seen in this photograph.



Florally decorated stations were usually to be found in the country, with most (especially in urban areas) still being dreary and bare – and, of course, grimy with soot. Any “beautifying” was generally due to the individual efforts of such station masters as Mr Mead, along with flower-loving assistant station masters, porters (I always think of 'Perks' watering his flowers in The Railway Children!) and signalmen, although some railway companies, like the Midland, began to encourage their staff to create and maintain station gardens by offering prizes for the best examples.


Railway embankments and stations were indeed promising areas for planting. One reader, writing in The Garden in November 1880, thought that, while noting that railway embankments were not, as a rule, “very attractive” and the only objects usually being visible for miles were the hedges, “it was pleasant to note with what pride and care some of our numerous railway stations are tended…”. At one station, which he didn’t name, he had seen groups of lilies, irises, gladioli, delphiniums, phloxes, carnations, fuchsias, Michaelmas daisies… and “last, but not least, that beautiful autumn-flowering plant Anemone japonica and its varieties…”. At other stations, he had noticed rhododendrons, other shrubs, and conifers, “planted on the embankment and along the platform with good effect.” This particular reader, while lauding the efforts of some railway companies to improve their stations, still feared that improvements could be slow and that “it will be long before people drop their newspapers” to look at them!


However, railway companies did begin to encourage their employees “to beautify the stations along the route” – and an article in The Garden in 1885 describes prizes on offer for the best “platform gardens” on the Midland Railway (between Manchester and Liverpool). An example may have been Coughton Station in Warwickshire - in the second photograph below you can just see the Midland Railway sign on the right-hand side, although both photographs are from some 20 years later, circa early 1900s.


‘Station Master and porter standing outside the booking hall at Coughton railway station which is bedecked with flowers c. 1900s’. Courtesy Warwickshire County Record Office


‘Coughton railway station with passengers and milk churns waiting for the train c.1900s’. Courtesy Warwickshire County Record Office. Note the flower beds on the other side of the track, with standards of some kind, possibly roses

In June 1888, an article entitled Railway Station Flower Gardening, again in The Garden, discussed, in particular, “the rich floral display and the marked improvement in the appearance” of the stations and precincts of the Midland Railway. The author, a Mr Walter Gaiger, had particular praise for Mr G R Garner, the station master at Bakewell Station who, having won the prize offered by the Midland Railway for the 'best kept and arranged flower garden' on the line 3 times in a row, had accomplished “by industry, and enthusiastic and ardent love of gardening” and who had shown what could be done to “change the bare and dreary slopes of a railway cutting, and transform them into a beautiful garden, gay throughout a long period of the season with lovely plants and flowers, affording pleasure to visitors from all parts…”. The author described a “rich floral display” at the station, with Garner responsible for the “tastefully laid out borders of neat and simple design… with handsome specimens of evergreen and coniferous plants” on the embankments. “In spring, beds and borders were occupied by Hyacinths, Tulips, Narcissi, Lilies, Ranunculus, etc”, with Garner reportedly planting 5,000 bulbs the previous autumn. Other beds were sown with annuals, while summer-flowering plants for later in the season were grown in “his little greenhouse near at hand”.


While there is quite a lot written in the horticultural press about the doings of the Midland Railway, with the exception of the photographs of Coughton Station, most images I've found are from elsewhere in the country. For example, the two images below show a Great Western Railway station at Lustleigh in Devon (probably c.1880’s to early 1900’s), whose stationmaster, Mr W R Bishop and his assistant, won the 1st prize offered by the company for the care of 'the Garden and the Station premises'. The GWR Directors acknowledging that it had meant “hard work and taste and skill” by their employees. Both photographs courtesy Lustleigh Community Archive.


The Lustleigh Society’s website includes an undated newspaper clipping reporting on Mr Bishop's prize-winning activities at the station

Another interesting article, published in The Garden magazine in 1895, entitled ‘Railway Station Gardens’, was written by no less a personage as F W Burbidge, the Curator of the Botanic Gardens, Dublin at Glasnevin. His article describes one of the “richest and prettiest” collection of plants at a railway station being at Kingscote station on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. Its glass-roofed veranda was, he thought, “literally a greenhouse filled with well-grown flowering plants such as Pelargoniums, Fuchsias, Petunias, and delicate Ferns…”. While the station master, Mr Ward, grew a variety of vegetables in his own kitchen garden. (The photograph The Stationmaster above is that of a later holder of that title at Kingscote.)


Photograph of Kingscote station on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway c. early 20th century. Note the flower beds and planting along the platforms. Courtesy Bluebell Railway


Burbidge quite rightly pointed out that “Kingscote affords a capital object-lesson for those who believe that gardening might be more generally adopted at railway stations, but of course a great deal, if not almost everything, depends on the individual inclinations of the master in charge.” Also, he thought that the charm of these station gardens was that no two were quite alike due to their varying positions, aspects and soils, etc., with Kingscote being “a good example of the cheerful results attainable…”.


Another rail station for which there is information is Rowley Station in County Durham on the North Eastern Railway. In the early years of the 20th century, the gardens and grounds around the station were planted and cared for by its station master, George Bainton. Research by the local museum discovered that station masters at Rowley were awarded a ‘Best Kept Wayside Station’ award in 1912 – the achievement driven by another George, George Beattie, who became Rowley’s new station master in November 1911 and while the awards were suspended during the years of the 1st world war, Rowley won again in 1920 as can be seen in the certificate below.


Rowley Station in County Durham c. early 20th century and, below, North Eastern Railway prize certificate 1920 for ‘Beginners’ Class Prize’ in the category Best Kept Wayside Stations.

Courtesy Beamish Museum


Another railway that encouraged their staff to improve their stations, was the London & North Western Railway which in 1910, probably the heyday of the golden age of travel by steam, allocated money for this purpose. Many welcomed the offer and adopted the scheme with enthusiasm including the station master at Tring, a Mr Bradley who, along with 11 of his staff who were keen gardeners, worked, as it was reported locally “…with hearty goodwill to carry out his plans”. Mr Bradley drew up a design and appealed to well-to-do local residents for trees, shrubs and plants. The local residents duly obliged, and these were planted in large tubs, together with hanging baskets suspended from the platform roofs, with fern rockeries tucked into bare corners. Unsightly banks were filled with trees and plants, while the area in front of the station master’s own house was included in the judging, planted out with nicely-arranged flower beds. The competition included other local stations, but it is not known who won in 1910. According to the Tring local history website, the judges often used track-inspection carriages (nicknamed ‘glass coaches’) to travel the length of the line viewing exhibits. And in the summer months, rail passengers often made special train journeys just to admire and appreciate the efforts of the station staff.


‘Tring Station Flowerbeds’. Courtesy Tring Local History website. Tring obviously continued with its floral efforts, as this undated photograph probably dates from between the 1930s-1950s


The turn of the century saw a further development: Theodore Walker, a Leicestershire landowner, wrote to The Garden in 1903 to advise that local gentry were working with the local stationmaster and porter to plant-up the railway banks, and provide them with plant material. Walker thought there were great opportunities for “beautifying our railway banks and adding to the interest of railway travel” – and he was not alone in this thinking. In 1900, the Railway Banks Floral Association was formed by Lord Grey, and Essex’s own Ellen Willmott (and yes, I know she always gets into my blogs somewhere...), to promote the planting of station gardens and railway embankments, and to help those already trying to achieve this while encouraging others to imitate them - Willmott commenting that “Travellers have always admired the railway banks here and there where nature has herself made them beautiful.”


The first branch of the Railway Banks Floral Association was established in Northumberland, Lord Grey’s home county, and Miss Willmott also proposed a branch for the Eastern Counties, where many stations were surrounded by wasteland, writing that in order to “add to the native beauties of Essex and East Anglia”, like-minded people were requested to write to the Honorary Secretary and she would “have great pleasure in sending as many plants, seeds and bulbs as can be distributed and planted”.


In the early years, Miss Willmott acted as both Treasurer and Honorary Secretary, and was reputedly active in planting the sides of the cuttings at Brentwood Railway Station (her local station). And, in November 1906, she wrote an article for The Garden in her Railway Banks Floral Association capacity with practical suggestions and recommendations for sowing flower seeds in bare spots or where the grass is thin; planting crocus or daffodil bulbs in grass; as well as describing the best times of the year to plant herbaceous perennials and shrubs.


Perhaps Miss Willmott had something like this in mind - below, ‘Brislington Station Garden', photographed in 1906. Brislington won the best station garden competition for the Bristol District in 1906. The man by the flower bed is probably the Station Master.


Planting at Brentwood station seems to have flourished as her friend and mentor, Henri Correvon (a regular visitor to Miss Willmott at Warley Place), wrote an article in the French journal, Revue Horticole (1902), with its title translated for me as ‘To Brighten the Embankments of Railways’, writing how he admired the English initiative taken by individual lovers of flowers “…to decorate the embankments of railways, especially around railway stations”. He thought Brentwood station “had the good fortune to be in the parish of Miss Willmott [as], long before the train stops, travellers can admire various flowers, planted profusely on the slopes nearby. Thousands of Narcissus and Tulip bulbs… Peonies, perennials of all kinds, Roses, etc.” Assuming of course that these particular commuters would put their newspapers down for a few minutes...


Information on the Railway Banks Floral Association is scant, but it receives a mention in The Cyclopedia of American Horticulture (1902). It thought the Association to be a “new and interesting factor in the improvement of English railways”, and described it as aiming to engage the interest of “owners of adjacent properties [to the railways], and for collecting money and materials for sowing and planting railway banks and cuttings” to make them more attractive.


But how are things at our railway stations today?


Today


For extensive gardens and flowerbeds as of old, it seems one choice is heritage railways and stations which nostalgically hark back to the days of steam, and the supremacy of a local-living station master. As can be seen in the photograph below of Berwyn station, they usually include floral displays on their platforms, often with a recreated station master’s house and garden. Some railway stations also enter the annual ‘Britain in Bloom’ competition, which has a special ‘Railway Station’ category.


Berwyn Railway Station in Denbighshire, Wales - now part of the heritage Llangollen Railway (formerly a stop on the Great Western Railway)


The other is the modern, and even futuristic plantings and gardens of modern rail redevelopments like Kings Cross, or large infrastructure projects such as Cross Rail providing roof gardens or ‘pocket parks’. The Kings Cross redevelopment includes various different public areas, including Jellico Gardens - as shown below.


Jellico Gardens'. Designed by Tom Stuart-Smith features a central pavilion surrounded by oriental plant trees. Its formal layout in contrast to the wild meadow-like quality of the planting, with swathes of colour and texture providing habitats for birds and bees


And what of the future...


Things are changing for railway stations across the UK network.


The recent trend for wildflower meadow planting alongside road verges – and even on roundabouts, seems to be spreading to the railways with some train operators aiming to increase the biodiversity of their stations. There are several examples of such projects, mostly undertaken in co-operation with volunteers, community groups, or such organisations as wildlife trusts. And rail companies can now sign up to the Department of Transport's Sustainable Stations Pledge - and their Best-Practice document which “considers how stations can play their part in the government’s commitment to deliver net-zero emissions by 2050”, focuses on environmental sustainability and best practice, while recognising that all stations in the UK are different in terms of size, layout and complexity (see link below).


The section on 'Biodiversity' in the DoT's 'Sustainable Stations Best-Practice' document is worth a read


One example of such a community project is Greater Anglia's installation of miniature herb and wildflower gardens to provide havens for pollinating insects at 7 rail station platforms in Essex. Good for wildlife whilst also allowing the travelling public to help themselves to fresh herbs (once the gardens become established), or just to enjoy their scent. They have also pledged their 56 station gardens to WildEast, a nature recovery movement which aims to return 20% of the land in East Anglia back to nature by 2050.


Greater Anglia’s Customer and Community Engagement Manager says of such station wildlife projects that they are helping the railway in East Anglia “to lead the green revolution by being a much greener way to travel…”. Greater Anglia's website also points out that the railways “are increasingly being recognised by ecologists as ‘green corridors’ which provide sanctuaries for many different kinds of flora and fauna”. However, this is not new. Even in 1896 one reader wrote in The Garden of the railways being “a refuge” for wildflowers being lost in the landscape due to agricultural expansion, and the spread of towns and cities.


Images from 'Suffolk Today' - in an article entitled ‘Wildflowers greet passengers at railway station’, June 2021 - showing 'before' and 'after'

Derby Road station in Ipswich is another example of co-operation between rail companies, community organisations and volunteers. An empty area of land was transformed by volunteers in June last year into a ‘wildflower patch’ with native species such as poppy, cornflower, corn cockle, and perennials. Signage provides travellers with information on the initiative.



The gardens and flowers established alongside the railways during the Victorian and Edwardian period were seen as being very much for the benefit of the travelling public and perhaps, to a lesser extent, railway company employees – whilst today's efforts are geared more towards concerns about the lack of habitat for plants, animals and insects, and meeting commitments regarding zero emissions and global warming. But in this, we all benefit.


Having been a regular ‘weary traveller’ in the past, I certainly look forward to a future with more and more such 'green' projects alongside our railways and in our stations.



References:

The Garden magazine is available via Biodiversity Heritage Library (biodiversitylibrary.org)

Department of Transport, Sustainable Stations Best-Practice Guide file.html (raildeliverygroup.com)



















Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page