Congratulations to the Rhondda Tunnel Society. This doughty group of campaigners was formed in 2014 with the modest objective of relocating a carved stone near the entrance of a railway tunnel in the Welsh valleys but soon found that the world expected more of it than that. Now the tunnel, opened in 1890 and nearly two miles long, is on the way to becoming the longest underground cycle path in Europe. Across the country, dozens of disused railway lines, closed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s, have become trails for cyclists and walkers. It is a tribute to the enduring qualities of Victorian engineering.
The 19th century did not always build to last. It was also capable of rushing up cheap and dingy workers’ housing, although the worst slums were usually to be found in decayed streets and courts that had been built long before. But in public works, the Victorians showed an ambition that can only leave one in awe. It’s not just the Houses of Parliament, built in a mere three years from 1837 to 1840 (the imminent restoration is expected to take several decades). I once descended into the labyrinth of sewers built by Sir Joseph Bazalgette to save London from a repetition of the Great Stink of 1858. The vaults seemed to go on and on in an endless perspective, the glazed bricks still in immaculate condition.
Look at the Glenfinnan Railway Viaduct, famous as the route of the steam trains that took Harry Potter to Hogwarts. Even to conceive of a railway track, raised on arches, crossing the remote river Finnan at over 100ft above ground takes some imagination. But Sir Robert “Concrete Bob” McAlpine and his engineers, using the uncharismatic material of mass concrete, made it sublime. In the 1st century BC, Vitruvius described the qualities desired of architecture as being firmitas, utilitas and venustas – structural soundness, usefulness and beauty – and great Victorian projects such as this combine all three.
It is the same with railway termini such as King’s Cross. Not only were they spectacular expressions of confidence on the part of their promoters, but many of them have since been reimagined, showing that old buildings are often capable of having a new life. Compare the Victorian achievement with the woeful plans to expand Euston as the London terminus for HS2. To call them a dog’s dinner would be unfair to Chum.
Euston, notoriously, was rebuilt in the 1960s. Until then, the entrance had been marked by the famous Euston Arch, erected as a flagrant piece of self-advertisement by the railways company in 1838, to disguise the irregularity of the early station yard. Even this low purpose produced great architecture, in the form of a Doric propylaeum 70ft tall. Workaday gasometers, meanwhile, were not seen as so humble by the company directors who paid for them: they emblazoned the skeletal metal cages with coats of arms – many of them removed to build Spitfires during the Second World War. Public utilities felt a responsibility to maintain standards. The first post or pillar boxes took the form of a Classical column. They were followed, in the 1920s and 1930s, by the similarly dignified red telephone kiosks designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.
Today, Britain has great engineers and designers, capable of producing Dyson vacuum cleaners and the aesthetic marvel of the iPhone. These marvels, though, are for use at home. We have lost the self-improving urge of the Victorians to build town halls that display local pride, law courts that reinforce the majesty of British justice or embassies in foreign capitals that express national self-confidence. Commercial buildings have a life of 30 years, not 500. Here’s a New Year’s resolution: let’s copy the Victorians.
Clive Aslet is a Visiting Professor of Architecture at the University of Cambridge