A few days ago we made a trip on the Settle to Carlisle railway line, a journey I’ve been wanting to travel on for years. It doesn’t disappoint, taking you across the famous Ribblehead viaduct and through some glorious North Yorkshire and Cumberland countryside.
The station at Settle, like many others along the way, was almost like a stage set; a perfect vintage station, painted cream and black-cherry crimson. And in the background, the glorious dales. It’s like being on a model railway set.
Nothing, for me, evokes such a strong sense of nostalgia as an old-fashioned railway station. And it made me wonder whether nostalgia is necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that nostalgia is often a longing for an imagined past, not the way things were, but the way we imagined them to be. In this case, we imagine a world of porters and tea-rooms, of steam trains and station-masters. Rationally, there’s nothing to say that the railway of the past was functionally better than it is today. (Although it would have to go some to be worse.) But our imaginations tend to filter out the bad bits. So nostalgia becomes a kind of escapism, a refusal to accept change. Nostalgia not for the way things were, but for the way we want them to be.
But what if nostalgia had its uses? It all depends on what you are nostalgic about, I suppose, but might it not be possible that this longing alerts us to something that we have lost? Architecturally, at least, these buildings have a scale, a beauty and harmony that you don’t find very often today. They are made with natural materials, sympathetic to the surroundings. Modern railway stations are brutally functional, all glass, steel and concrete. They lack a sense of humanity and community. They privilege function over form. Or maybe they forget that beauty, too, has a function.
Nostalgia, then, could be a useful tool for architects and planners. Instead of viewing it solely as a reactionary longing for the past, they could look at it as an indicator of what is missing in contemporary life. It might be wishful thinking, but surely it is always helpful to know what people are wishing for.