VICTORIA COACH STATION is one of London’s larger surviving Art Deco buildings, but it isn’t ranked alongside the Oxo Tower, the Hoover Building in Perivale, Senate House Library with its creaking lifts or the London Underground headquarters at St James’s.
Perhaps it suffers from being associated with the mild discomforts of coach travel, or how a good hour of the coach journey is spent creeping through London traffic. The inside of the station feels cramped for the number of people using it.
In the early 1930s, when an operators’ consortium had Victoria coach station built, going by coach was becoming the more modern, fun and democratic alternative to rail. Recently BBC4 had an excellent Time Shift documentary on the history of coach travel, and you can watch a few clips here.
In this site’s new Radio actuality section there’s an entry for this 1935 Victoria coach station recording:
How have the sounds of the coach station changed between then and now? Recently I made this recording on a Friday evening:
Gone are the singsong invocations of town-names and the coaches no longer have multitone horns – outlawed in 1973 for all but emergency service vehicles. There are in fact two clearly-delineated soundworlds at Victoria coach station nowadays, made so by the addition of a floor-to-ceiling glass partition which separates the coach bays from where the public sit, stand and wait.
Doors are set into the partition. Sometimes staff leave them open and sometimes they’re locked, which suggests that the vehicles’ domain is seen as hazardous. A stream of passengers will walk quickly across a few yards of tarmac to their coach and huddle around it for a short while as tickets are checked and suitcases and backpacks are stowed away. Their voices are faint compared to the sound of intercooled diesel engines.
On the passengers’ side of the partition are occasional announcements over a tannoy, the rattle of wheeled luggage, coughs, and voices. Unlike the the station of 1935, those voices will speak many different languages. London is now completely cosmopolitan, an aggregate of people from everywhere.