Britain’s most iconic bus stations – past and present
In the great scheme of things, architectural critics look at structures like Egypt’s Great Pyramids, St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, and the vertical skyline of New York City. Sports venues around the world are revered for their iconic status due to famous victories or unique atmosphere. To get to any of these places may require a bus or two. (Well, other private or public modes of transport are available).
Of the Seven Wonders of the World, only The Great Pyramids remain. The United Kingdom is not without its architectural wonders, but the very places that take us there are undervalued. Unless you drive or cycle, we mean bus stops, bus stations and railway stations. Our major railway stations are not without their plaudits, with York, Huddersfield and St. Pancras International universally adored by rail geeks and non-rail geeks alike.
As for bus stations, there isn’t the same romance. If you look hard enough, you might find some gems. This blog post aims to address this balance.
Our Seven Bus Station Wonders of the United Kingdom
- Inverness, Farraline Park (Stagecoach in the Highlands);
- Workington, Vulcans Lane/Murray Road (Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancashire);
- Preston, Tithebarn Street (Rotala/Stagecoach Cumbria and North Lancashire);
- Bradford, Metro Travel Interchange, Nelson Street (Metro West Yorkshire/NBC West Riding);
- Manchester, Lower Mosley Street (North Western Road Car Company);
- Derby, Morledge Street (Midland General/Trent Motor Services);
- London, Victoria Bus Station (Transport for London/National Express).
Please note that any operators stated above may refer to retrospective operators for long demolished or superseded structures.
If you choose to explore the Scottish Highlands on public transport, Inverness is the natural starting point for your journey. As well as being a starting point for the Far North and Kyle lines, Inverness railway station is in a sensible position for exploring the city. It is also neatly placed for the bus station.
Inverness’ bus station, in Farraline Park, has local links with Strathpeffer, Dingwall, Nairn and Cromarty. Also long distance routes to Wick, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Though the stances are basic for a city centre bus station, the setting is superb. It is an atmospheric place for catching a bus or coach, surrounded by the city’s library and railway station.
Bus enthusiasts have two reasons for visiting the West Cumbrian town. One is the town’s role in building the Leyland National single decker bus. The other, more pertinent to this post, is its bus station.
Workington has the oldest purpose-built bus station in England. Actually, the oldest purpose-built bus station that is in continuous use. It opened on the 19 March 1926 with many of the town’s buses transferring from Central Square and various other streets in the town centre. Its front and rear entrances resemble a cinema or a Methodist chapel.
As Cumberland Motor Services, the original owner of this bus station, became part of National Bus Company and Stagecoach, this means we could use our Explorer ticket to our next Bus Wonder of the United Kingdom. A journey that would require three buses, changing at Keswick and Lancaster.
For bus enthusiasts, the 1969 version of Preston Bus Station could well be its equivalent to the Bernabeu or Nou Camp stadiums. Designed by the Building Design Partnership, Preston Bus Station was the largest bus station in the UK. It had 80 stands at street level below its multi storey car park. There was connecting subways that linked the bus station with its Taxi Rank, St. John’s Shopping Centre and Preston Guild Hall.
The bus station was shared by Ribble Motor Services and the County Borough of Preston Transport Department. It replaced a smaller facility on Tithebarn Street and, prior to getting Listed Building Status, was threatened with demolition.
Today, its successors (Stagecoach and Rotala) use the now refurbished bus station’s 40 stands. The taxi stand now forms part of the coach station. With the buses all using the stands off Carlisle Street, the Tithebarn Street stands have been replaced by community facilities and a focal piazza. Its refurbishment work has given the 51-year-old structure renewed vim and vigour.
Preston bus station gets its place in our Seven Bus Station wonders of the United Kingdom because of its then-cutting edge design. The addition of cafés, shops and crew relief facilities in a fully enclosed space was visionary. Not least being able to transfer between modes without dodging traffic.
From 1969 to 1977, the largest bus station in the United Kingdom was situated in the Red Rose County. For a time, it was the White Rose County which had these bragging rights. Enter West Yorkshire PTE’s Metro Travel Interchange in Bradford.
The Metro Travel Interchange (to give it its original name) was built to move all of Bradford’s buses to one part of the city. Buses and (prior to 1972) trolleybuses terminated outside the Town Hall or at Chester Street bus station, near the Science Museum (National Museum of Film, Photography and Television). With Bradford Exchange station losing a lot of rail traffic, it was cheaper to build a modest four-platform station a few yards southbound. The closure of nearby goods stations left a lot of spare land.
After countless discussions with Bradford City Council and West Yorkshire County Council, the Metro Travel Interchange was born. It would have 144 bus stands, with escalator and footbridge access to its six platforms, underground car parking, a footbridge to the city centre, and a coach station. These were connected to a central concourse, shared with bus, coach and railway stations. Below the bus deck was a new bus depot. On the corner of Nelson Street and Hall Ings was Metrochange House – built as Head Offices for Metro West Yorkshire PTE.
As bus deregulation led to falling bus patronage, the running costs of WYPTE’s interchange became less sustainable. The buses moved from the subterranean bus depot, which became a bingo hall. Half of the bus station was sold off to Abbey National for office space; its six island platforms of 144 stands were replaced by a single terminal. This time, using the pull in and reverse out method, as seen at many of Metro West Yorkshire’s bus stations. Opening in 2001, it has a bright and cheery ambience, though uses the same concourse as its 1977 predecessor.
Whereas Bradford Interchange has been remodelled, the same could not have been said for Lower Mosley Street bus station. Before we used to queue at Ringway, we used to queue around the block for Blackpool coaches. For many people, their holidays began at Lower Mosley Street Ommibus Station. Opening in 1928, its main users were North Western Road Car Company, Ribble Motor Services, and Lancashire United Transport.
As well as having long-distance limited stop bus routes like the 6 to Glossop, it was best remembered for its variety of express coach routes. Not only to Blackpool, but to various part of the UK including London, Birmingham, Yorkshire, North Wales and Scotland. The Blackpool express routes were so popular that they had their own platform, just off Calder Street. This was built in 1930.
By the early 1950s, Lower Mosley Street bus station was heaving. The Blackpool bus had a frequency of every three minutes – at least the equal of today’s 192 route between Manchester and Stockport. Duplicate buses were hired from various operators by North Western Road Car Company, Ribble Motor Services and Lancashire United Travel.
Like North Western Road Car Company, Lower Mosley Street was destroyed by an Act of Parliament: the 1968 Transport Act. The creation of the National Bus Company saw cuts to express services and most of North Western’s bus operations moving to SELNEC PTE’s Cheshire district. The former NWRCC coach services became part of National Travel North West and moved to the grottier Chorlton Street Coach Station. The last journey out of Lower Mosley Street was a 2330 coach to London [Victoria Coach Station] on the 13 May 1973.
Had Lower Mosley Street stayed a coach station, it would have been useful for Manchester Central Convention Centre. The transfer from St. Peter’s Square tram station would have been trifling and traffic free, compared with transferring from Chorlton Street to Piccadilly Gardens. It could have been popular with The Haçienda crowd and, in the 21st century, good for HOME as well as the Central Library. For further reading on Lower Mosley Street bus station, I recommend Neville Mercer’s e-book on the subject.
Manchester’s links with Derby are woeful. Before 1968, you could take a direct train there. Before 2018, the TransPeak coach service provided a limited link between the two cities. Today you need to change at either Buxton, Stoke-on-Trent or Sheffield. Before the motorway was king, Derby bus station was a regular calling point for London coaches from Manchester city centre.
Derby’s present-day bus station opened in 2010. Architecturally, it is nothing special compared with its predecessor. Its previous structure, designed by Charles Herbert Aslin had Art Deco architectural leanings and opened in 1933. It is claimed to be Britain’s first ever purpose-built bus station, though that honour belongs to Workington’s bus station from 1926.
The centrepiece of Derby’s 1933 Central Bus Station was its main concourse which had a café, chemist and a tobacconist. From there, passengers would move to any of the bus station’s platforms and find the stand of their choice. Like a railway station, each platform had kiosks. The third platform housed the control centre.
After local lobbying against its closure, the 1933 version of Derby bus station was retired on the 22 October 2005. The cost of restoration to its 1930s glory was too prohibitive for Derby City Council. Two years on, nobody had started work on its replacement. With a bit of spit and polish, it could have been reinstated. Instead, they demolished this fine structure and replaced it with a nondescript hotel and casino that happens to have 29 bus and coach stands. Yes, the privatisation of your public space as the gift that keeps on giving.
For those of you who cannot remember Derby’s Central Bus Station in its halcyon days, the Derby Telegraph did a retrospective piece on the 24 March 2020.
Had Lower Mosley Street and Derby Central Bus Stations been in Greater London, they probably would have had a bit more tender loving care and funding. The UK’s capital city is better known for its red buses and Underground trains than coaches. Yet, London has had principal coach stations on the city’s peripheries that are forgotten by today’s passengers. One was Judd Street, where Birch Brothers’ express route to Rushden departed from. Another was Gloucester Street Coach Station, used by Len Wright Travel’s services in the early to mid 1980s. Then there was the mud bath of King’s Cross coach station, used as part of British Coachways’ ill-fated attempt to break National Bus Company’s stranglehold.
Today, only two coach stations seems to matter among the capital’s coach passengers. One is the Green Line Coach Station used by regional services to Luton and Reading. They lie in the shadow of what is arguably Britain’s most iconic coach station. Yes, the Art Deco edifice that is Victoria Coach Station.
It was opened in 1932 for its original operator, London Coastal Coaches. This was a consortium of coach operators that covered Greater London and South East England. It was designed by Wallis Gilbert and Partners, whose other works include the Hoover Building off the A4 in Perivale (which is now a most exquisite TESCO superstore). Owned by Transport for London, it has 22 stands and is served by 15 different coach companies.
If Lower Mosley Street was the coach industry’s equivalent to Old Trafford, Victoria Coach Station could claim to be the original version of Wembley Stadium. Recent reviews have complained about the coach station’s facilities, being a bit on the small side. Prior to the pandemic, it was one of the UK’s busiest coach stations and according to 2016 – 17 figures, it was used by 14 million passengers. Transport for London must be doing something right, then.
Here’s a few more worthy bus and coach stations that have just missed the cut.
- Castleton: as it only has one shelter, it barely registers as a bus station for some purists. It has a toilet block, which is more than could be said of Radcliffe’s and Stalybridge’s bus stations. What sets it apart from other single stand bus stations is its scenic setting, which makes for a pleasant waiting environment. The Peak Hotel is only a short stagger away, which is one up on many urban bus stations across the UK.
- Cheltenham: if you travelled from Greater Manchester to Bournemouth or Torquay till the early 1980s, there’s a good chance you may have changed coaches at Cheltenham. The Black and White Associated Motorways coach station was an important changeover point for coaches from various parts of the UK. (I think we might need another article on this one).
- Leeds: a well designed late-1980s bus and coach station with airy concourse and clear separation between National Express routes and local bus routes. Great for the open market and indoor market.
- Liverpool (Pier Head): for many people getting off the Douglas ferry, this was the first thing its passengers would see besides the Royal Liver Building. For bus enthusiasts and boat enthusiasts, Pier Head Bus Station had it all – Mersey Ferries, bigger ships and green Metro Cammell bodied Leyland Atlanteans.
- Newcastle-under-Lyme: before the motorway cut journey times, Newcastle-under-Lyme’s bus station was a popular changeover point. At one time, it was the nerve centre of Potteries Motor Traction’s operations.
- Wells: if Emmerdale Village had a bus station, it would look like Wells’ effort. For a bus station with pull in and reverse out stands, it is in a pleasant semi-rural setting. Another reason to visit this beautiful city besides its architecture and use in the modern British classic flick Hot Fuzz.
Before I go…
What do you think of our Seven Bus Station Wonders of the United Kingdom? Feel free to elaborate on our existing selection or add a few of your own. Should the long demolished Cheltenham Coach Station be added to the list? Is Huddersfield bus station better than Bradford Interchange’s bus deck? Feel free to comment.
S.V., 17 September 2020.