'For a brief moment, Sheffield becomes the Rome of the North': Why new book ranks city's railway station among Britain's best

The Cutting Edge water feature and fountains outside Sheffield railway station
The Cutting Edge water feature and fountains outside Sheffield railway station

Is Sheffield on a par with the great European capitals? Simon Jenkins thinks so - or, at least, he does when standing outside the city's railway station as night falls.

"Its environs recede into the darkness and careful lighting picks out Charles Trubshaw's 12-arched screen," he writes, praising the building's designer and making the case for its inclusion in his new book Britain's 100 Best Railway Stations.

Simon Jenkins

Simon Jenkins

"For a brief moment, Sheffield becomes the Rome of the North, with the Baths of Caracalla and the Trevi Fountain in the foreground."

He's referring of course to the fountains and the stainless steel Cutting Edge water feature in Sheaf Square. "Here, for once, is a forecourt that works."

Sheffield lucks out among the Yorkshire stations - Hull, Huddersfield, 'lovable' York and coastal Whitby have made the cut, but there's no sign of Leeds.

Jenkins says his criteria were 'entirely personal' - architectural beauty, eccentricity and setting - and that the guide was not intended to be a list of the 'biggest or most picturesque' of Britain's 2,560 rail stops.

A train on the platform at Sheffield

A train on the platform at Sheffield

The author, who used to edit The Times and Evening Standard newspapers and is a columnist for The Guardian, knows his stuff. He spent a decade as a non-executive board member of British Rail, founded the Railway Heritage Trust and aims to present stations as 'among the most enjoyable buildings in the land'.

But he doesn't profess to have examined stations in any great detail before. The publisher needed to twist his arm to write the new book following his previous surveys of cathedrals and country houses.

“Everyone is in the station for a purpose - wondering where their train is or the person they have come to meet. You don’t stand back and look at it," he says.

Rail's rapid expansion in the 1800s left Britain with stations built in a jumble of different design styles, so every one is distinct in some way.

The enormous Barlow train shed at London St Pancras, Jenkins' joint favourite station

The enormous Barlow train shed at London St Pancras, Jenkins' joint favourite station

Simon embarked on the book by compiling a shortlist of about 150 stations, which he visited, travelling the length and breadth of the country, before paring down the list to just 100.

Sheffield was the focus of much attention in the railways' early years, 'assailed' - as Simon puts it - by the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincoln Railway, the London & North Western and the Midland, with viaducts, bridges and tunnels built across the city's hills and valleys.

The Midland station - built in 1870 and extended by Trubshaw in 1904 - was the last to arrive, and is the sole surviving city centre station today.

Trubshaw 'did not hold back', says Simon. His screen of gabled arches at the main entrance is an 'exceptional work', he believes, while the Cutting Edge outside gains similar plaudits.

"It is an accomplished celebration of Sheffield's most famous product, and commendably uncluttered."

He had a little difficulty finding the Sheffield Tap pub - originally the Edwardian first-class waiting room on platform one.

"When I asked a member of staff the whereabouts of 'the historic platform pub', he said he did not know, but I had better ask 'in the Tap'."

London takes the lion's share of the entries. Great termini were built there as showpieces of the big railway companies, and the Underground stations were some of the first in the world to open.

Simon has given star ratings to his choices. Sheffield gets three stars while his joint favourites - St Pancras and Paddington - receive five.

St Pancras, the destination for Sheffield passengers heading to London, was revamped in 2007 and now has Eurostar services on its timetable.

One of the unsung benefits of privatisation, Simon says, is that stations once seen as a liability by British Rail are now seen as an asset.

"This is a message of optimism," he adds.

Britain's 100 Best Railway Stations is out now, published by Viking Hardback, priced £25. Jenkins is speaking at Off the Shelf on Sunday at 3pm in the Pennine Lecture Theatre at Sheffield Hallam University's Owen Building. Tickets £6.50-£9. Visit www.offtheshelf.org.uk for details.