I travelled down to Surrey yesterday and had one of my least favourite experiences; trying to connect from Liverpool Street Station to Waterloo. For some reason, there are at least five different ways to do this, all of them involving at least one change and none of them very good.
But I had a couple of minutes spare when I got to Waterloo and was able to look around. It's not London's best train shed by any means; it's expansive, but it lacks the class of Saint Pancras or Liverpool Street. All the money was spent on the rather pompous frontage.
What I loved, though, were the huge hydraulic buffers at the end of the tracks - proudly marked with the name of Ransomes & Rapier, Ipswich. The firm is no more, unfortunately, but the buffers stand proud today.
There's something rather nice about old ironmongery. Many French villages retain their old village pumps - some still working, some purely decorative - and it's interesting how each region seems to have had its own dominant firm of ironfounders. It always makes me sad when I see an old pump or fountain that's fallen into disuse; but when they're working, and particularly when resplendent with a fresh coat of black paint, they give the place life and verve.
Old signal buoys sitting on the docks at King's Lynn, streaked with rust and spattered with estuarine mud, the lines of rivets like buttons on a guardsman's coat. The fine swing bridge at Leith, its x-shaped girders marching under the fine curve of the top beam. These are functional bits of metalwork, but they somehow have more than just functionality; they have character.
I wonder if we're now appreciating old ironwork not so much because of nostalgia for the past, as because architects like Calatrava, Richard Rogers, Frank Gehry and Edward Cullinan (designer of the Gridshell at the Weald & Downland Museum in Sussex) have accustomed us to looking at structures and grids, at exposed structural parts, rather than the veneers and smooth surfaces of conventional architecture?
Most people associate Victorian stations with John Betjeman and the old fogeys. They're looking at the picturesqueness of the work, at the echoes of Gothic architecture, the coats of arms of railway companies, the feeling of a lost world.
But I think the appreciation of elegant software solutions and post-modernist architecture gives you a different perspective on the Victorians and on functional ironwork. It's not about picturesqueness, but about the integrity and imagination of a daring structure - of a great bit of engineering.