The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 8 (December 1, 1929)
Making Railway Stations Beautiful
The following article by Dr. Chilton was written shortly before his death. He was one of New Zealand's most distinguished scientists. Apart from his more technical writings, which have permanently enriched zoology, he has written much (in “The City Beautiful” of which he was editor) intended to help in improving the appearance of our cities. This article contains some valuable suggestions regarding the wider adoption of gardening schemes to make railway station surroundings more pleasing to the eye.
Towards the close of the Nineteenth Century it was my good fortune to live for over four years—1895 to 1899—in the ancient and historic city of Edinburgh—dear “Auld Reekie.” Certainly there were “reeks” in abundance. If one stood on the summit of Arthur's Seat at the hour when the domestic fires were being lighted and looked down on the old town and saw the smoke issuing from the many chimney pots, it was not difficult to imagine that it was a gigantic railway yard that lay before one, with the smoke of many engines rising from the sheds. A little to the right lay Calton Hill, at the one end of Princes Street, and in front, but further away, Edinburgh Castle, rising in majestic solidity, too often half obscured by the smoky haze. Just beyond it was the Caledonian Railway Station, then comparatively new and well ordered, while at the foot of Calton Hill was Waverley Station, the centre of the North British Railways, fortunately half-hidden in the valley, for it was in all the confusion and disorder of rebuilding. Between these two stations many hundreds of trains ran every day, and from each terminus they branched off in various directions. They were all drawn by coalburning locomotives, for that was long before the days of internal combustion engines and electric motors. Edinburgh was more a University town than a manufacturing centre, but there were sufficient factories, foundries and printing works to add appreciably to the atmosphere's “dusty freight.”
Recollections of Edinburgh.
And yet Edinburgh was a very pleasant place to live in even for one accustomed to the clear skies and open spaces of New Zealand, and this was not altogether due to the intellectual and historical attractions of the Scots capital. There were green spaces on the surrounding hills, in the Meadows in the old town, and in the semi-private squares of the new, and the recollections of the first day spent in Edinburgh are rather of the hyacinths and other spring flowers in the gardens than of the grimy streets and dull, dingy closes. The Princes Street Gardens, lying between the two large railway stations and almost on top of the railway lines running from the one to the other were, every summer, a brilliant mosaic of green grass and bright flowers always in bloom.
If all this was possible in Edinburgh under such unfavourable conditions of climate and fuel, is there any reason why the railway stations throughout New Zealand should, in 1929, be anything but patches of beauty to add to the natural charms of the country?
Station Gardens in Scotland.
Pleasant though it was to spend the time in Edinburgh, it was a delightful change, after several mouths, to get away by train and visit the Scott country—Melrose Abbey, Abbotsford, Jedburgh, Dryburgh Abbey, and so on. But the most astonishing things to be seen during that trip were the railway stations with their bright flower beds and well-kept, tidy premises. In New Zealand one had been accustomed to bare, open yards, with a shingle-covered platform and dry, dusty approaches leading to the equally dry and dusty roads. These New Zealand stations were, of course, only of recent construction, the Scots ones were much older and more venerable; the newness of the buildings had been effaced by time, everything had the appearance of substantial strength and solidity, and all the portions not required for traffic seemed to have blossomed out into brilliant flower-beds set in restful areas of green grass. page 35 Naturally some were better kept and more attractive than others, but all, without exception, shewed signs of careful efforts to cover the bareness of railway activity with something to appeal to the passenger's love of the beautiful.
Later on we learnt that these station gardens were encouraged by the enlightened policy of the North British Railway Co. Inspection of all the stations was made periodically, and after consideration of the conditions of each case they were arranged in order, first, second, or third class, and prizes awarded the most deserving; the results being published in the Scotsman and other papers. Great rivalry and desire to excel was the result, and apparently all the employees at each station took pride in the condition of the station under their care.
The Modernity of Railways.
Railways have become so much a part of our ordinary business life that we are apt to forget how modern they are. Yet it is only a little more than a hundred years since the first railway was opened; the Stockton and Darlington Railway was commenced in 1821 and opened in 1825, for the transport of coal only. New Zealand Railway history dates back only to 1860, when a contract was let for the construction of a line from Christchurch to Lyttelton. The first portion of this line was opened on the first of December, 1863, and though other lines have been formed since then at a rate surprisingly rapid for such a sparsely populated country it is still possible to find, not only children, but elderly adults who have never seen a railway locomotive. Many of us can remember the excitement when the railway train was first seen making its way across the tussock-clad plains or through the virgin bush, and we have often descended on a dark night at some lonely “station” consisting only of a landing platform of shingle or earth lighted by the kerosene lamp carried by the guard travelling with the train. For years the settlers who used these railways had something more urgent to think about than the formation of gardens, even at their own sod whares or timber-built shacks. At the flag-stations there was no stationmaster to attend to the passengers and the goods, and even at the stations dignified with the presence of an officer-in-charge there was for many years no thought of a station garden other than the patch of vegetables and perhaps a few flowers around his own cottage.
Station Gardens in New Zealand.
But progress has proceeded apace in this as in many other matters in this rapidly growing country—now no longer a Colony but a well settled and dignified Dominion. There are flag-stations still surrounded by native vegetation, but at the officered stations this has been replaced by introduced grass and garden flowers around the homes of the stationmaster and his assistants. More recently the landing platforms and the public ground immediately around them have received attention, and the station garden proper is now to be seen in many parts of the country. The first of these were probably started by officers for their own pleasure and enjoyment, but it was not long before they attracted the notice and approval of passengers travelling by train, and they have more recently received official recognition and commendation from the railway authorities. A brief notice of some of the station gardens was given in the issue of this magazine for June, 1928, and it will be pleasing to those who are acquainted with the North British Railway lines to learn that the only part where the encouragement of station gardens is organised on a substantial scale is Otago. There the Otago Women's Club has set in motion a big scheme for station beautifying, and the staff throughout the district has readily responded. Cups and prizes have been offered and keenly competed for, the ladies themselves doing the judging. It page 36 is recorded that one of the finest features about these contests is that all members of the staff become interested in the gardening work, and the resulting display of flowers and shrubs is really a station garden and not the work of a single individual.
Beautifying Stations in Canterbury.
First Impressions All Important.
First impressions are all important in the formation of opinions. On a certain voyage to England, towards the end of 1911, the steamer was forced, unexpectedly, to call at Madeira. Scarcely had the passengers landed, after some weeks at sea, when they were delighted at the profusion and abundance of the semi-tropical flowers to be seen everywhere, and they were still more surprised and delighted to have beautiful blooms thrown to them as they were being carried up the little railway to the heights above Funchal. Some of these passengers later on, in the spring of 1912, reached Basle, the page 37 capital of Switzerland, after a rather trying railway journey across France, and, though weary, they could not help going into raptures over the sight of the masses of hyacinths in full bloom in the square just outside the railway station. Naturally these persons have very favourable opinions and pleasant recollections of both Funchal and Basle. The contrast between these welcomes and the chill reception to the bare wharf at Lyttelton on the arrival of the ferry steamer, and the hurried scramble into the train and through the tunnel (before it was electrified) can be easily imagined. Yet both Lyttelton and Christchurch have beauties of their own quite equal to those of Funchal and Basle. Why should we present the least attractive side to our visitors as they arrive? There are beautiful roses and many bright flowers at the Heathcote station. But why cannot we have some of these at Lyttelton also? From Heathcote the visitors are carried to Christchurch over a charming piece of level country, and may catch glimpses of bright gardens at the homes near the railway line which help to qualify the unfavourable opinion he has already gained on his arrival at Lyttelton. If we could have low-growing shrubs, such as flowering cherries and peaches, so abundant in the gardens of Christchurch, growing on the banks by the side of the railway line, his impressions of that city would be much more favourable.
Planning and Planting the Gardens.
Another point may be urged. These garden plants and shrubs, beautiful though they are, may be quite familiar to the visitor, and he has probably heard of New Zealand's wealth of ferns and of the fine plants peculiar to the country. Yet he fails to see them on his arrival, or in the cities he usually visits. There are plenty of ferns hardy enough to be grown at any railway station in New Zealand; at New Plymouth and other places in the North Island they grow luxuriantly, and it would be easy to arrange them at the stations so as to give the same impression as that conveyed to the tourist by the illustrations he has doubtless seen in the guide books descriptive of the beauties of New Zealand. Naturally the railway gardens must be planned and planted with due regard to the climatic and other local conditions of the situation. At mountain stations, such as Arthur's Pass and Otira, some of the “mountain lilies” (Ranunculus Lyallii), Ourisias, Ratas, and shrub by Olearias, could be grown and, at the proper season, blooms from these could be offered to visiting botanists and others specially interested in the vegetation of New Zealand.
Few Stations Really Hopeless.
One can imagine the reader saying: “Yes, this is all very well in theory; but it is not so easy to grow plants in a railway yard, where the engine smoke makes its presence felt and the trains are constantly passing to and fro over the gravel-covered shunting yards.” Of course some places are more difficult to deal with than others, but few are really hopeless to the true lover of flowers. Our peculiar “mat-plants,” species of Raoulia and other genera, grow in abundance in the riverbed shingle, and would grow equally well in some of the railway yards; a small introduced Sedum is abundant on waste areas near the railway lines at several places in Canterbury, and might be induced to come a little nearer if properly encouraged; in other places garden escapes of Escholtzias, Cat Mint and Bugloss page 38 form bright patches over acres of poor soil, and it would be worth while sowing the seeds in the unused portions of the railway stations or alongside the lines between the stations and leaving them to Nature's care.
The Care of the Gardens.
For most plants the great essential is sufficient moisture; the character of the soil is relatively unimportant. The railway locomotives resemble the plants in their craving for water, and a sufficient supply has to be provided. Could not some of this water be used for the benefit of the station gardens and enable plants to grow in places that without water would remain bare and give rise to nothing but dust? Small ponds could be formed in suitable areas in the shunting yards, and it would not be difficult to add to these small water sprays, or spouting fountains, that would form a pleasant sight for the passengers while waiting for the engine to get its supply of water in another part of the station yard. With the fine nozzles that can now be obtained delightful showers of spray fine as vapour could be formed with comparatively little expenditure of water, and could be used to keep the flowers growing vigorously, or to moisten the more tender ferns.
These are but suggestions; but with the perseverance and enthusiasm already shown in the care devoted to many station gardens, and with the co-operation of the members of the staff they might become realities and make our stations not the least beautiful places in a beautiful land.
Britain's Vast Railway Industry
The important position of the railways, as one of the largest employers of labour in Britain, cannot be over-emphasised (says the Railway Newsletter). In addition to nearly 700,000 permanent staff, their large orders for materials and manufactured goods give employment to many thousands in various industries, and it is claimed that at least one-twelfth of the population of the country is dependent for its living on the railway industry.
The amount spent by the four railway groups annually for upkeep and development totals more than £40,000,000, and they are among the largest purchasers of coal, iron and other materials in the country. Materials for the repair and renewal of the permanent way cost £4,250,000 per annum and for locomotives, carriages and wagons £14,500,000.