Barrow Hill Roundhouse, Chesterfield
By Stuart Ritson

There is little I find more therapeutic than sitting on an internet-bargain first class seat on a high speed train, watching the world flash by on the other side of the glass. Having briefly relinquished control of your destiny to the driver, your mind is entitled to wander, your gaze free to follow the rolling horizon. As a designer, I also find it happens to be a place where my typographic taste buds are frequently titillated.

In fact the railways are home to many of my favourite examples of typography and graphic design, so I decided last year to pay a visit to the rather wonderful Barrow Hill Roundhouse with the specific intention of recording some of the best examples.

Barrow Hill is a working museum centered around a large train shed in which various bits of rolling stock are gathered around a turntable, where they undergo various degrees of restoration. Trains, wagons, signage and other ephemera of all ages and conditions are gathered around the site; some rusty, some shiny, some clean and some dirty, most adorned with interesting nuggets of type.

It’s interesting to note the contrasts between the charmfully inconsistent hand-painted, drop shadow type of old and the modernist logic introduced by the Design Research Unit during the ambitious and rather wonderful widespread branding of the newly nationalised British Rail in 1965.

Personally I think the British Rail identity, centered around its purpose-designed Rail Alphabet face under the stewardship of Kinnear and Calvert is one of the best examples of graphic design our little island has seen. In fact when anyone tries to convince me there exists a logo greater than the famous and tenaciously ubiquitous BR Double Arrow I generally argue with them until my mouth falls off.

Though the British Rail scheme is now long defunct, it still looks as modern today as it always did. I often wonder in amazement at just how fresh and exciting it must’ve looked when it was introduced almost half a century ago. Nowhere is this surprising vintage more-eye opening than when seen in situ on the rusting bodywork of retired and decrepit rolling stock.

Here the contrast of old and new is made clear, the sharp graphics sitting above the old stamped plate it supersedes.

In the cab of a tired steam engine is evidence that new technology brings with it new risks and new risks bring new warnings.

On the side of a derelict freight engine, Rail Alphabet can be seen standing proud, resilient. Modernism refusing to die, while elsewhere old stenciled characters fade away to nothing.

Despite my love of all things modernist, I’ve always adored cast iron type. I love how the letters stand proud, often painted in thick contrasting paint.

Thoughts of its construction fill my head with images of molten metal being poured, of cutters and welders, of large pincers, chains and pulleys – imagery I’m sure you’ll agree is a rather more exciting process than watching a modern day sign-writer’s vinyl cutter at work. Heavy typography too, in both physical and character weight. One hopes the rawlplugs behind each corner are up to the job.

Metal typography was abundant around the sight, not all of it on such a grand scale.

As I made for the donation box and car park beyond I saw this warning sign.

Performing its duties rather well it grabbed my attention from across the room, and only as I walked over to photograph it did I notice just how rough it was. It rather confounded my expectations, transforming before my eyes from stark and clear to rough and hand drawn, from crisp perfection to wobbly imperfection in the space of a few feet.

It was that interesting combination of old and new that somehow brought me full circle. Even as a devout follower of strict modernist, sans-serif logic and order, I’m forced to concede it’s always a pleasant surprise to see signs of that human touch we supposedly put out to pasture long ago.

Barrow Hill Roundhouse
Kinneir and Calvert, design museum profile

Design Research Unit, Wikipedia page
DRU Exhibition
New Rail Alphabet

Further British Rail design enthusiasm from the author


Excellent images Stu – many thanks. You may be interested in the Design Research Unit exhibition currently touring the country…

So what’s in your neighbourhood?

I am putting out a request for contributors for the “my type of… place” section of this blog and would like you to put together your own typographic tour. If you are interested, download the contributors information sheet for more details, ideas and specifications here.