“St Pancras was a 14-year-old Christian boy, who was martyred in Rome in by the Emperor Diocletian. In England he is better known as a railway station.” With these immortal words, Sir John Betjeman set in motion the most astonishing transformation of fortunes of any British building in modern times.
Who would have thought, when the first Eurostar from Paris pulled in at 12.46 pm on Tuesday after its record-breaking 2hr 03 min run through the Channel Tunnel that just forty years ago this magnificently restored cathedral to the railway age was proposed for closure and demolition.
As they stepped off the train, French guests, jealous of their reputation as having the finest rail system in the world, gasped as they surveyed the magnificence of the newly restored glass roof, once the largest single span in the world, freshly repainted in its original Victorian sky blue. One was heard to whisper – perish the thought – that it made their own Gare du Nord look dingy by comparison. There was one thing that everyone agreed on – when it reopens for business to the rest of us on November 14, St Pancras will not only be one of the most magnificent stations in the world but a state-of the art monument to the new high-speed age of the train.
Yet back in the 1960s, when the poet laureate was a lone voice speaking up to save it, the British establishment thought differently. Just along the road, the Euston arch was already a pile of rubble. Progress was thought to be Richard Seifert’s hideous new Euston, designed to mimic an airport terminal. Architects at the time poured scorn on George Gilbert Scott’s fairytale gothic towers at St Pancras as “derivative” and ‘second rate”, and Betjeman himself was derided as a sentimental fogey. Even the trainspotters were deserting St Pancras as glamorous trains like the “Thames-Clyde Express” ceased to run, and the anoraks with the Ian Allan ABCs transferred their allegiance to Kings Cross next door. The final straw came with Dr Beeching’s plan to divert all the trains away and to convert the magnificent trainshed into a sportsdrome.
But Betjeman would not be silenced, and his single-handed persistence won the day. The nation was swayed by his eloquent words, urging us to admire “that cluster of towers and pinnacles seen from Pentonville hill and outlined against a foggy sunset and the great arc of the trainshed, gaping to devour the incoming engines.” Like the poet laureate himself, St Pancras, with its high Victorian extravagance, became a national treasure and was saved.
But back in the politburo of British Rail headquarters, the determination to destroy St Pancras did not abate. Soon it had lost all its trains except those to mundane destinations in the east Midlands. Pigeons nested in the roof and the concourse became the haunt of crack dealers and prostitutes. The famous clock on the tower, always set a two minutes fast to hurry along late passengers, ground to a halt. Worse still was the fate of Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel, the most magnificent in the land when it was completed in 1873. The 300-room hotel was the first to have lifts (known as “ascending rooms”) and electric bells. It was built with the finest materials and had every facility – even a ladies smoking room. It closed in 1935 never to reopen – ostensibly because it didn’t have enough bathrooms – and was partitioned with hardboard to make offices for the railway’s clerks. Latterly its peeling paintwork, fallen ceilings and stained walls became an eerie and sinister attraction for tourist parties and a creepy Gothic backdrop for movies like Ian McKellen’s Richard 111 and Batman Begins which were filmed there.
But in the space of two years, in her new role as replacement for Waterloo as the destination of the new high-speed lines through the Channel Tunnel, the old lady has been reborn. Buffed, polished, de-grimed and re-welded to original splendour at a cost of £800m by its new owner, London and Continental Railways, St Pancras, has once again become a symbol of national pride.
Just how thorough the rescue has been was apparent last week when I was offered the chance to don hard hat, boots and high visibility vest to climb over scaffolding to join the army of workers putting the finishing touches before the first public trains run in nine weeks time. Actually, plus-fours and gaiters might have been more appropriate, so thorough is the authenticity of the Victorian restoration. Sixteen million bricks have been made in kilns specially reopened to recreate the colour of the original Victorian designs, 18,000 panes of self-cleaning glass have been installed in the roof, which has been tiled with 300,000 new Welsh slates all set in the traditional manner. Vast oak doors have been constructed for the entrances and their brasswork meticulously copied from the original drawing book under the watchful eye of English Heritage.
Raise your eyes to the top of the trainshed, and a shining frieze of multi-coloured tiles has been unearthed from beneath the grime of centuries. Above you, sparkling in the sun, as it has not done for 150 years, is the 243ft iron span that once formed the greatest enclosed space in the world. It needs no imagination to see why this was once the jewel in the crown of the grandest railway in the land.
The old Midland Railway made its fortune from muck and brass – unglamorously carting coal and steel, beer and bricks on a line that extended for the south midlands to the Scottish border. It wasn’t the biggest railway but it was the richest – worth seven times more than its biggest non-railway rival, Imperial Tobacco. But it didn’t have a station in London. Its rivals at Euston and Kings Cross had already staked out their claim on the Euston Road. So when it did decide to build its London extension, the directors in Derby decreed that it must announce its presence in the grandest and boldest scheme that money could buy.
Two great Victorians performed the magic. One was the finest engineer of the day, William Henry Barlow, a pupil of George Stephenson, who designed the station itself. The Midland was far too grand to tunnel under the Regents Canal, like the Great Northern next door at Kings Cross. Instead, Barlow brought the line in to platforms 18 feet above street level using 850 iron columns each capable of withstanding 55 tons and apparently hardened by marinating in horse urine. The Midland, always liking a return for its cash, used the space to store beer brought from Burton-on Trent to quench the thirst of Londoners. The gap between the columns was specified to be just three barrels apart – a statistic for passengers to muse on as they queue for their train, since the undercroft forms part of the new Eurostar check-in.
Barlow’s engineering genius was matched by the gothic extravagance of George Gilbert-Scott, the greatest architect of the day, who built the wedding cake hotel façade. A contemporary of Gladstone and Dickens, he believed that gothic architecture was next to godliness and so incorporated elements from Winchester, Amiens and Ypres cathedrals in his design –a fact which drew the scorn of the architectural establishment of the 1960s but may comfort guests as they settle into their beds in the newly restored hotel next year.
They will also be able to hear the tick of the famous station clock tick once again. The 10ft diameter timepiece, built by Dent, the makers of big Ben, had stood over the concourse for a century until it was sold off to an American for £250,000 during a low point in the station’s fortunes in the 1970s. But the workmen taking it down dropped it, smashing it to pieces. Rather than see it dumped Roland Hoggard, an engine driver from Nottingham bagged up the bits and took them home on his train, and they have remained in his garden ever since.
It was an exciting find for the St Pancras restorers, who have made an exact copy right down to the Welsh slate numerals, cast iron hands and gold-leaf ornamentation that once adorned the original. Mr Hoggard, now 91, has been rewarded for his foresight in being invited to the official opening ceremony on November 6, when the clock will be back in pride of place.
With its new suit of clothes, there will be nothing to compare in the world with St Pancras, except perhaps New York’s Grand Central station, which no longer has any long distance trains. Even Brunel’s masterpiece, Paddington, looks tatty and grimy by comparison. In William Barlow’s undercroft and in the restored concourse there will be 67 shops, restaurants and a farmers’ market. Alongside platform one, to celebrate arrivals and departures, there will be the longest champagne bar in Europe – 314 ft long. The poet of the Victorian age and the station’s saviour will still be there, in the form of a newly commissioned statue, wearing his trademark trilby outside a gastropub named the “Sir John Betjeman”. Some 50 million people will pass through what will be one of the busiest stations in Europe, and seven million are expected to come to shop and come simply to shop and to eat. Appropriately enough, St Pancras is even to have its own vicar.
But in this tale of restoration and pride, there is one note to spoil the proceedings. Just north of St Pancras, on the specially constructed track leading into the station, there is a mysterious connection that ends abruptly after just 150 feet. This was expected to link into Britain’s next high-speed rail project – the HS2 line to the north. Now the Channel Tunnel Rail Link is complete, the next phase was to build a high speed line to Birmingham, via Heathrow airport, on which double deck trains running at 200mph would cut the journey time to 45 minutes by 2022. The line would have provided a greener, more reliable and quicker alternative to flying and would have put Birmingham within four hours of Paris. Later the line would have extended to Manchester and Glasgow.
But this exciting project, which would have seemed entirely logical to the French and Germans, was not to be. Last month, transport secretary Ruth Kelly announced her strategy for Britain’s railways over the next 30 years and shunted HS2 into the buffers. For the foreseeable future, Britain’s splendid new St Pancras will link into just 70 miles of high-speed track this side of the Channel. As it did in the 1960s, the Great British Lack of Vision has jinxed us again.