Seven wonders of London: St Pancras Station

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The capital is home to some of the most spectacular man-made marvels on the planet. We've identified seven world-beating sights that every Londoner needs to rediscover. Every week for the next six weeks we unveil a new wonder, but to begin the series, we explore the awe-inspiring architecture of the new Eurostar terminal

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    The reconditioned interior at St Pancras International

    Sir George Gilbert Scott had no delusions about his design for the St Pancras hotel and station-front. ‘My own belief is that it is possibly too good for its purpose,’ he claimed. Despite his belief in St Pancras’s greatness, the building – generally rated the grandest celebration of gothic architecture in Britain – was to fare badly. Completed in 1877, the hotel was struggling to survive by the beginning of the twentieth century. New rivals like The Ritz stole St Pancras’s business and in the ’30s it was closed and turned into offices.

    Worse was to follow. By the ’60s the whole place – station and hotel – was earmarked for demolition and only survived by a whisker. After that, the hotel lay semi-derelict, and the station half-used, until their twenty-first-century rescue.


    This rebirth will be officially completed on November 14 when one of the most lavish facelifts in British architectural history is unveiled and Eurostar trains start to sweep out of St Pancras’s great train shed on their two-hour journeys to Brussels and two hour, 15-minute trips to Paris. In its newly restored glory, St Pancras – capable of handling eight Eurostar trains an hour – will provide London with a fusion of modern technology, gothic grandeur, and steam-age engineering. Eighteen-carriage trains will carry passengers through 19 miles of new tunnel on a 31-minute journey to the Channel Tunnel.

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    The entrance hall

    At the same time, the station will be transformed – by London and Continental Railways (LCR), builder and operator of the Channel link – into a stately pleasure dome where intercontinental travellers, Londoners and commuters can rub shoulders, prepare for travel or simply spend money. The longest Champagne bar in Europe is being built here. There will also be a farmers’ market, a branch of Foyles, a gastropub, a pâtisserie – and no McDonald’s, thank you very much.

    Scott’s great hotel – an imposing cliff of red brick topped with towers and pinnacles – has also been restored. An extension opposite the British Library has been added in matching brick, while its top floors are being converted into apartments by the Manhattan Loft Company. The rest of the building will be returned, in 2008, to its original use, this time as a five-star Marriott hotel.

    Not everyone is overjoyed, of course. To continue to accommodate trains from the Midlands, as well as provide platforms for new local rail trains that will use the high-speed line to Kent in 2009, a huge concrete and glass extension has been added north of the existing station. Local trains will stop and start here, forcing their passengers to walk at least 500 extra yards to and from King’s Cross-St Pancras tube station. This has not gone down well. As one correspondent wrote to the Guardian: ‘There seems to have been little concern for ordinary mortals.’

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    The reconditioned clock hangs above Paul Day's sculpture

    But, of course, consideration for ordinary mortals was never an issue at St Pancras. The station and hotel were designed to dominate, not to serve. It was built, as Scott put it, ‘on so vast a scale as to rule its neighbourhood’. From the start, the board of the Midland Railway – galled by the fact that for years they’d had to use other rail companies’ lines to enter London – wanted to ensure their terminal would be the biggest and most spectacular in the city. William Henry Barlow – the engineer chosen to design the station (Scott was responsible only for the hotel and station front) – opted to cement this domination by bringing the Midland Railway line over Regent’s Canal half a mile to the north. This was a crucial decision. The architects for next door’s King’s Cross had already elected to go under the canal, leaving the last part of its line, and the station, huddled close to ground level.

    Barlow’s move was ambitious but posed a major problem. ‘If trains had come down into a station that had been constructed at street level they would have entered at too steep an angle and ended up in Euston Road – not good for business,’ says Ben Ruse of LCR. ‘So Barlow decided to raise the whole station, by a total of 18 feet, on 1,000 cast iron pillars.’ In doing so, he helped create an edifice that towers over the neighbourhood. He was also left with a cavernous storage area below. Fortunately, he knew exactly what to fill it with: beer.

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    The undercroft at the building's heart will be the departure lounge and was once a store for millions of pints of beer

    Ales from Burton upon Trent were immensely popular at the time. By renting out this great vault, known today as the undercroft, as a beer store, the Midland Railway realised it could generate a great deal of extra money that could be spent on making the station and hotel even more lavish. The undercroft – which could hold, when full, a total of 28 million pints – was tailored so precisely to the brewing industry that the pillars supporting the current platforms were spaced precisely to allow three beer barrels to sit between them. And it is down here, below the station’s platforms, that’s the heart of the new St Pancras.

    English Heritage, which supervised the station’s reconstruction, was persuaded by Alastair Lansley, lead architect for the reconstruction, to allow four sections of the undercroft roof to be removed, so natural light from the station above could spill in. Here, the station’s plush mall is being completed as well as Eurostar’s ticket desks and a dozen passport points. The latter will be particularly important in speeding travellers to their destinations, adds Ruse: ‘We are going to slash check-in times without any compromise in security. We will have you halfway to Paris while air passengers will still be waiting at Heathrow’s security scanners.’ Once through security, passengers will take escalators up to the main concourse below Barlow’s great train shed, a vast, single-span arch of glass and steel. Scraped of its old grime and painted light blue (its original colour), this soaring, ethereal structure is revealed in all its true glory.

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    The new Eurostar platforms

    It is the combination of the ornate splendour of Scott’s hotel and this great vault that makes St Pancras such an architectural wonder – and makes the fact that it only just survived demolition all the more extraordinary. The problem was that the ’60s were a time of ‘progress’ which viewed our Victorian past with derision. ‘I have never passed St Pancras without hoping that it would soon be demolished,’ wrote former civil servant and businessman Sir Edward Playfair. Nor did it help that the building had been allowed to decay. ‘Paintwork was crazed and blistering, hanging frond-like from ceilings, or scattered in slivers across bare-boarded floors; wires sagged down begrimed walls; a film of gritty dust lay on every light-bleached window sill,’ recalls Simon Bradley in his book, ‘St Pancras Station’. So planners decided the whole edifice would have to come down to be replaced by a concrete office block and sports hall.

    Only a last-minute campaign led by the future poet laureate John Betjeman – who wrote passionately of St Pancras’s ‘great train shed, gaping to devour incoming engines’ – saved the station and hotel. Hence the decision to honour Betjeman by naming the station’s new pub after him and erecting a statute of him in the main concourse.

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    The newly restored interior has been repainted in its original colour

    It took a further 30 years until the future of St Pancras was assured, though the place was not completely ignored. The hotel’s abandoned appearance proved particularly popular among filmmakers who used the place to shoot scenes for movies such as ‘From Hell’, ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘Richard III’, as well as the Spice Girls’ ‘Wannabe’ video. St Pancras acquired its own ghost: a mysterious man who is seen walking up its main stairs.

    In the end, the station was saved by a group of rail executives, who were battling over the location of the terminus that would house the high-speed line linking London with the Channel Tunnel and who vetoed – again at the last minute – the idea of building a vault below King’s Cross station. St Pancras would do nicely instead. It was a fine decision. Along with Barlow, Scott, Betjeman and Hardy, those bureaucrats can take pride in the fact that they helped save one of the capital’s finest edifices. Visitors can now enter the city through a portal of magnificent proportions, an amalgam of nineteenth- and twenty-first-century technology and architecture. The only blot on the landscape is the view they get when they leave the great concourse: the hideous ’60s concrete headquarters of Camden Council, a shapeless ugly eyesore and a proper candidate for demolition.

    Robin McKie is science editor of the Observer. For more on St Pancras, visit www.stpancras.com .

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