The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 1 (April 1, 1935)
Thrills of a Railway Station — G. K. Chesterton's Impressions
A Railway station is an admirable place, although Ruskin did not think so. He did not think so because he himself was even more modern than the railway station. He did not think so because he was himself feverish, irritable, and snorting like an engine. He could not value the ancient silence of the railway station.
“In a railway station,” he said, “you are in a hurry, and therefore miserable;” but you need not be either unless you are as modern as Ruskin. The true philosopher does not think of coming just in time for his train except as a bet or a joke.
The only way of catching a train I have ever discovered is to miss the train before. Do this, and you will find in a railway station much of the quietude and consolation of a cathedral. It has many of the characteristics of a great ecclesiastical building; it has vast arches, void spaces, coloured lights, and, above all, it has recurrence or ritual. It is dedicated to the celebration of water and fire, the two prime elements of all human ceremonial. Lastly, a station resembles the old religions rather than the new religions in this point, that people go to it. In connection with this it should also be remembered that all popular places, all sites actually used by the people, tend to retain the best routine of antiquity very much more than any localities or machines used by any privileged class. Things are now altered so quickly or coarsely by common people as they are by fashionable people.
Ruskin could have found more memories of the Middle Ages in the Underground Railway than in the grand hotels outside the stations. The great palaces of pleasure which the rich build in London all have brazen and vulgar names. Their names are either snobbish, like the Hotel Cecil, or (worse still) cosmopolitan like the Hotel Metropole. But when I go in a third-class carriage from the nearest circle station to Battersea, the names of the stations are one long litany of solemn and saintly memories. Leaving Victoria I come to a park belonging especially to St. James the Apostle; thence I go to Westminster Bridge, whose very name alludes to the awful Abbey; Charing Cross holds up the symbol of Christendom; the next station is called a Temple; and Black-friars remembers the mediaeval dream of a brotherhood.
If you wish to find the past preserved, follow the million feet of the crowd. At the worst the uneducated only wear down old things by sheer walking. But the educated kick them down out of sheer culture.
I feel all this profoundly as I wander about the empty railway station, where I have no business of any kind. I have extracted a vast number of chocofates from automatic machines; I have obtained cigarettes, toffee, scent, and other things that I dislike by the same machinery; I have weighed myself, with sublime results; and this sense not only of the healthiness of popular things, but of their essential antiquity and permanence, is still in possession of my mind. I wander up to the bookstall, and my faith survives even the wild spectacle of modern literature and journalism.