St. Pancras, London: "the most wonderful railway station in the world"
by Duncan J.D. Smith
Not without reason has London’s St. Pancras been called “the most wonderful railway station in the world”. A marvel of Victorian engineering, it consists of a colossal train shed fronted by a gloriously rambling Victorian hotel. After defying various calls for its demolition, the station was successfully reinvented in 2007 as St. Pancras International, with the refurbished St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel opened four years later.
The Midland Railway company unveiled St. Pancras in 1868, as the southern terminus of a new mainline connecting London with the industrial heartlands of the East Midlands and Yorkshire. The consultant engineer on the project was William Henry Barlow (1812–1902). He was responsible not only for laying the permanent way from Bedford down to London but also construction of the terminus station on Euston Road.
To enable the new line to cross Regent’s Canal, however, and to accommodate the sloping site of the station, Barlow set his platforms some 16 feet above pavement level, on a forest of 800 cast-iron columns. The resulting ‘undercroft’ was used for the temporary storage of beer arriving into the capital from the breweries of Burton-upon-Trent (the distance between each pair of columns being dictated by the dimensions of the 36-gallon beer barrels used at the time). Barlow protected the platforms themselves with a cast-iron and glass canopy. Measuring just over 246 feet from side-to-side, it was at the time the world’s largest single-span roof. The ribs supporting it were sprung directly from platform level and still carry the name of the Derbyshire-based Butterley iron company that made them.
The Midland Grand Hotel opened five years later in 1873. A competition for its design was won by the renowned Gothic Revival architect, George Gilbert Scott (1811–1878), who also designed the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park. He provided for 250 bedrooms concealed behind an extravagant Italianate façade of polychromatic brick. The building was not only luxuriously appointed, with a grand staircase, wall-to-wall Axminster carpets and a fireplace in every room, but also featured numerous technical innovations, including hydraulic lifts and the country’s first revolving door.
Despite such a promising start, St. Pancras declined steadily throughout the 20th century. The Railways Act of 1921 forced the creation of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, which adopted Euston as its principal London terminus. Services into St. Pancras were reduced accordingly and the hotel, which had proved difficult to modernise due to its remarkably sturdy fireproof construction, closed in 1935. Thereafter it was converted into offices, the glorious interior decorations obscured, and the aforementioned revolving door unceremoniously removed (the one seen today is a replica).
Inevitably as the years passed there were calls for the unloved and unfashionable building to be pulled down. Fortunately, however, a vociferous campaign in the 1960s spearheaded by the poet John Betjeman (1906–1984) staved off the threat of demolition.
Redemption came in the 1990s, with the government’s decision to adapt St. Pancras as the terminus for the new cross-Channel Eurostar service. To accommodate a terminal for trains to continental Europe and another for domestic services to the north and south-east of England the old train shed was extended, and a shopping mall opened in the former undercroft. After enormous effort and expenditure the new-look station was reopened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. A marvellous statue of John Betjeman looking up at William Barlow’s still-impressive train shed roof now adorns one of the platforms.
Around the same time, the hotel was painstakingly restored to much of its former glory, and also extended. Today the former ticket office is now a bar and a new lobby occupies what was once the covered taxi rank. Fascinating guided tours of the re-branded St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel are available by appointment during which a behind-the-scenes look at the building’s constructional history is given.
More recently, the station’s High Speed 2 rail extension made the headlines. The site of the building, a Victorian-era public garden, was originally St. James’ Cemetery in which several luminaries were buried. They included navigator Captain Matthew Flinders (1774–1814), whose coffin and remains were retrieved, as well as black American boxer Bill Richmond (1763–1829, and members of the auctioneering Christie family.
St. Pancras is flanked by two other historic railway stations. King’s Cross opened in 1852 as the southern terminus of the East Coast Main Line. A blue plaque there commemorates Nigel Gresley (1876–1941), designer of the world’s fastest steam locomotive Mallard, and there is a much-photographed sign for Platform 9¾ inspired by the film Harry Potter. Squeezed between St. Pancras and Kings Cross is the so-called German Gymnasium, England’s first purpose-built gym (now a smart restaurant), where the indoor events of the 1866 Olympics were staged. On the other side of St. Pancras is Euston Station, opened in 1837 as the terminus of the West Coast Main Line. Despite being controversially rebuilt in the mid-1960s, the remains of the grand Doric arch that once fronted it have been re-assembled and plans are afoot for its reconstruction.
Adapted from the book Only in London: A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Unusual Objects by Duncan JD Smith (published by The Urban Explorer).
Also in this series by Duncan J.D. Smith:
About the Author
Explorer and travel writer Duncan JD Smith first got the history bug when his grandfather unearthed the grave of a Roman soldier. He opened his own museum aged eleven and went on to study archaeology at Birmingham. After many years in travel publishing, in 2003 he relocated to Vienna, where he writes and publishes his Only In Guides, a series of city guides for independent cultural travellers. Duncan is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. www.duncanjdsmith.com and www.onlyinguides.com.
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