Saturday, 19 January 2013

St. Pancras station - things you know and things you don't


Well if it's a bit strange to name a station after a bear, it's even stranger to name one after an organ of the body. The obligatory bad joke over, who was he, and why is the Eurostar terminus named after him? Well, a Ten Word Wiki for him might read "Roman who converted to Christianity. Beheaded at age of 14."

OK, but what's that to do with the Euston Road? Well, it seems to be about relics. Centuries later, the Pope sent some of St. Pancras's relics to England in the hope that this would evangelise people. In return the British clergy named a number of churches after him. Including this one. Then people named the area after the church, and the rest is history.


The London railway termini were an opportunity for the Victorian railway companies to show how great they were, so instead of little but picturesque stations such as were built for places such as Broadway

Photo courtesy Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway

we ended up with a massive station at St. Pancras with a Victorian Gothic hotel in front of it, like this

Photos courtesy Wikipedia

The differences between this particular cathedral of steam and its next-door neighbour, King's Cross, are numerous. The one you see immediately is that St. Pancras is build of red brick, whereas the stock London brick is yellow (even if it does come from near Peterborough, but that's another story). Remembering that King's Cross (opened 1852) is built of yellow brick, and St. Pancras (opened 1868) is much grander, one cannot help but feel that this was a Victorian willy-waving exercise. This is nicely illustrated by the aerial photograph from Webb Aviation below:


The next point to note about the differences between the two stations - and you can see it from the aerial photograph - is that the tracks of St. Pancras are considerably higher than those of King's Cross. As you enter St. Pancras station from the road, you climb steps; as you leave King's Cross you enter a tunnel. This 'loftiness' is only visible from the air, so no willy-waving here. The reason for the height differential is a blue line which is visible on the aerial photograph if you know where to look - the Regent's Canal. The line from King's Cross tunnels under the canal, but the line from St. Pancras crosses it by bridge. This forced St. Pancras station to be built on columns, and the planners were very careful. They created columns which were a certain distance apart. (No-one knows how these columns were made, but apparently the process involved ropes, tree trunks and horse urine!) This National Railway Museum photograph illustrates the columns during the building of the station:

The distance between the columns was equal to the width of three of these:

Photo courtesy Deposit Photos

Three beer barrels. For one of the directors of the Midland Railway was this Member of Parliament:

Photo courtesy Wikipedia

who also owned the brewery in the background of the picture of Burton on Trent:

Photo courtesy

Michael Thomas Bass Jnr. wanted to use the new railway to transport his beer from Burton to London. Burton Ales - pale ales and bitters - had traditionally been drunk from glasses (rather than the tankards which had prevailed elsewhere) due to the quality of the local water and the lightness of the drink: customers could see that the beer was clear in the glass. The beers prevalent in London at the time - stouts and porters - did not benefit from the clear glass, and were thus served in the traditional pewter tankard. As the Burton Ale became more popular in London, so glasses replaced pewter tankards. And thus the design of the station directly influenced behaviour in pubs.


The 1960s had seen the rise of the motor car, and Beeching and Marples' rationalisation of the railways. Euston (including its Great Hall and iconic arch) was demolished in 1961-2 and replaced in 1968 by this homage to blandness:

A similar fate awaited St. Pancras in 1966. The hotel had become offices ("St. Pancras Chambers") in 1935, and by the 1960s had fallen into disrepair as illustrated here. As for the station, the issue with cathedrals of steam is - well - cathedrals and steam didn't go very well together. If you were wanting to take care of the stained glass windows of York Minster, your first priority wouldn't be to coat them in an ever thickening layer of dirt. Given the line out of the station, the Midland Main Line, was not electrified (and it still isn't), when diesel trains replaced steam trains the dirt continued to accumulate. This is well illustrated below in this photo from Urban75's blog:

It seems somewhat ridiculous now with how many services use the two stations, but the idea was to route all St. Pancras services to and from King's Cross. Both the station and the hotel would have been demolished. Then John Betjeman - Poet Laureate, co-founder of the Victorian society, and enemy of everything bland - led a vociferous campaign to save the station and hotel. The words Betjeman used were "it would be a criminal folly to destroy a building whose name conjured up wondrous images of architecture and light in the mind of every Londoner". By 1967, the campaign had succeeded and both buildings were Grade I listed.

Listing buildings does not force them to be maintained - it merely means people cannot make changes without permission. It needed a grand scheme to renovate the station and the hotel.


When the Channel Tunnel was built between 1988 and 1994, it is not an exaggeration that France embraced the idea of High Speed Rail rather more than the UK. France built a high speed link from the tunnel to the Gare du Nord. The UK linked the tunnel into the legacy railway near Folkestone, then found a circuitous route across south London to terminate trains at Waterloo. Hardly ideal.

Then plans emerged to take the railway under south-east London to terminate near King's Cross. These plans were rejected because they would have caused environmental damage in south-east London, plus they offered no regeneration benefits. The revised plan which would take the line to St. Pancras would cross the Thames by bridge, and build stations at Stratford and at Ebbsfleet in the Thames Gateway. This was estimated in 2005 as being likely to create 50,000 jobs close to the two stations. Also, there existed the space to build a 'domestic' station at the back of the original station.

But how to do this? It's always difficult to build upon a well-known building without criticism either of pastiche, or of detracting from the original building. Alistair Lansley led the work, and the result was this:

Photo courtesy

The building has character, but it is clearly from a different era to the old shed beside it. It's also very practical: diesel trains from Nottingham and Derby can terminate in the new shed, leaving the electric Eurostar trains to terminate in the old shed where they would not damage the restoration work. Some examples of this work follow:

Photo courtesy

Here the ironwork has been painted with a colour close to the colour of the sky, to match the original paint used by the shed's architect, William Henry Barlow.

Photo courtesy National Rail

The undercroft, designed for beer barrels, now houses the Eurostar departures area.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Natural light floods into the undercroft via a hole made in the original train shed floor. Vandalism? Certainly not.

Photo courtesy BBC

The new station clock, reconstructed by the original clock makers, Dent of London. But what of the original clock? Well, it was sold to a collector in the US for £250,000, but it was dropped when it was being taken down, and smashed into pieces. A retired railway worker took the bits home to Nottinghamshire, and assembled the bits on the end of his barn. The result is below:
Phota courtesy

A bit out of proportion with the barn, you might think? A bit like St. Pancras with Euston Road then. It doesn't mean it isn't good architecture.


Whereas Eurostar services transferred from Waterloo to St. Pancras (overnight!) in 2007, it took until 2011 to reopen what became the St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel. Pictures can describe the opulence far better than words, so here is a selection of photographs:

Photo courtesy Glenn Copus

Photo courtesy The Guardian

Photo courtesy The Guardian
 Photo courtesy The Guardian
There's nothing I can add to that, other than to hope that I stay there one day (it starts from about £750 per night for a room in the converted Chambers). Oh, just one little thing while I remember. Here's the bar and restaurant in the former booking office:
Photo courtesy

And how do they serve beer? In pewter tankards. Someone has read up on the history of the station.

1 comment:

  1. I was looking for ariel photos of Burton and came across this page. I used to live in Camden Town and know this station well. Interesting new piece in the history-of-beer jigsaw re pewter vs glass. Thanks!