The death of Barnehurst Cathedral

by Steve

It is not actually a cathedral. It is not even a church. It is a purely secular building. It is not even officially called a ‘cathedral’. That is just a colloquial term for such buildings. It is a railway substation. Although it is not actually that. It stopped being a substation around 1970. It became a track paralleling hut, a TP Hut. And it is not even a TP Hut now. It is an empty structure. It will not be an empty structure much longer. Barnehurst Cathedral is in the process of being demolished.

The cathedral-like structure was built in the mid-1920s. The building seems to be both austere and beautiful, functional, yet something elegant too. It is a big building, probably the biggest in the vicinity, yet it isn’t overbearing. Surrounded by the station itself, and trees, and housing, it is tucked away, too tucked away to be a local landmark, yet striking enough when you come across it.

Barnehurst Station 1961

I always thought it would make a great conversion, yet with no access roads, and with residential property so nearby I guess that was never really an option. And Barnehurst isn’t really one of those areas where someone with more money than sense buys up a folly/money pit and makes it something else.

A new building will take its place. I suppose that was the easy option. And by ‘easy’ I mean ‘cheapest’. The great shame of fine old buildings is the finance around restoring them or converting them. Sometimes the sums don’t add up. And unless it is a building in the right area, supported by the right people, then it just disappears.

Barnehurst Cathedral is a unique building, really. It is not historic, I guess. I doubt many people feel an attachment to it. And so it goes.

Barnehurst Station 2011

Yet the story of Barnehurst is rooted in the train station. The station was built before the town. The line was built to encourage suburbia. The new station was in the middle of nowhere, relatively. A place with no name. But you can’t have a train station without a name. It was named after a local landowner, who just happened to be vice-chairman of the railway company. The town would follow.

So, without the train station, there would not be a Barnehurst. The station is the birthplace of the town. It is Barnehurst’s origin story. A humble story, but a story nonetheless. Barnehurst Cathedral, the substation, then TP Hut, then empty space, was an inadvertent monument to the town. But not for much longer.

However, perhaps the disappearance is apt. Barnehurst does not appear on anyone’s address. Royal Mail does not recognise it. It almost never became an official place. It was destined to always be an area of houses, attached to a station that was in need of a name. It is both place, and non-place. With the loss of the old substation, it becomes just a little more nebulous, a little harder to grasp.

I shall still miss the old building though. Maybe I’m just sentimental. In the way of progress. I understand that not every old building can be saved, nor should every old building be saved. Yet maybe I just feel that we sometimes steadily, stealthily, lose the identity of a place with these small deaths.

Barnehurst Station 2014

Images from/copyright of Ben Brooksbank, Nigel Thompson (both under this Creative Commons licence) and me.

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