beer-barrel gothic

The railway station that skipped a century: London’s transformed St. Pancras.

On November 14, you will be able to board a Eurostar train that will get you from London to Paris in a little over two hours, or to Brussels in a little under. Building the “High Speed One” international line has cost £5.8 billion, or nearly $10 billion at current rates. And where will you catch that train? The gothic fantasy of St. Pancras, a station that missed out on the 20th century altogether. It is an almost surreal conclusion to a 40-year saga.

Back in the early 1960s, High Victorian architecture in Britain was widely considered to be hideous, fit only for demolition. Many key buildings were lost. In London the next in line, the highest of high Victorian, was represented by the smoke-blackened, sinister turrets of under-used St. Pancras. It was right next to its companion station, dour old King’s Cross. With the railways long since nationalised and passenger numbers falling, what need for such duplication? So in 1966 a new merged station was mooted. The wrecking-ball was readied. But by then the tide was turning. The Beatles and the Kinks loved Victoriana, and so did cuddly poet and conservationist Sir John Betjeman. St. Pancras was duly listed as a Grade 1 building, on a par with the Tower of London. But having saved it, nobody knew what to do with it. For decades.

And now look. St. Pancras has had £800m spent on it, and is about to become the single most important station in the UK. Britain’s world-class engineers, Arup, have been instrumental in the whole thing and are shareholders in London and Continental Railways, which has built the line, the new stations – everything. The redbrick turrets of the old station hotel, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott at his most outrageously camp, are being converted back into a hotel, plus multi-million pound apartments. Judicious new additions to the old building are done in knowing reference to – and sometimes outright imitation of – the Scott style. But like the Victorian psyche itself, St. Pancras has always been Janus-faced.

Where Scott’s hotel frontage and station flanks harked back to medievalism, the 1868 trainshed behind, by engineer William Henry Barlow, was another matter entirely. This was Victorian high tech, a look-no-hands marvel, for many years the widest single-span arch in existence. And while it is plenty wide enough and high enough to take today’s Eurostars, unfortunately it is not nearly long enough for those super-stretch trains. This, plus the need for extra platforms to keep existing rail services to the Midlands, has led to St. Pancras sprouting a somewhat graceless new rectangular station box at the back – from an original idea by Norman Foster, but carried out by others. It looks like value-engineers have got at it. It does the job, and they have separated the old and new structures with a tall glassy transept, but it does not raise the spirits. The best you can say of it is that it is inoffensive and doesn’t attempt to compete with either Barlow or Scott.

But in a way, this back extension doesn’t matter. What matters is what they have done to the old station. This is more than mere restoration, though that is impressive. At first I was unsure about the sky-blue paint on Barlow’s great iron arches. This was their second original coat of paint, the first having been a more typically Victorian chocolate brown. But the more I see the place, the more I go with that sky-blue. Together with the extra daylight flooding in through reconstructed ridge-and-furrow roof glazing, it lightens the whole place, makes it feel bigger. They had to go one way or the other – either leave the place dark and grubby, down-at-heel and mysterious, or acknowledge that it is now a much busier station with a completely new purpose and clientele, and spruce it up accordingly. With the blessing of English Heritage, they have done the latter.

It is a complicated picture, because many different hands are at work. The first part you see – the restoration of Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel at the front, plus its new annexe on the western flank, both projects by the Manhattan Loft Company- is designed by Richard Griffiths Architects with fellow architects RHWL. That bit started later and won’t be finished until 2010. The main work at the station is designed by LCR’s Alastair Lansley, a railway architect with a pedigree going back to British Rail days. Lansley took on the Foster concept for the trainshed extension, and in turn masterminded and delegated aspects of the conversion work to others.

So I found retail specialists Chapman Taylor fitting-out the £50m shopping centre and departure lounges in the old street-level storage undercroft beneath the tracks, where Burton beer barrels used to reside. Dirt floors are replaced with hectares of solid timber. Plunging further downwards in one corner, you get to the clangorous box of the new Thameslink station, threaded between enormous existing sewer pipes, which will open in early December. Just as the St. Pancras cellar used to be for beer, Thameslink used to be a goods line for coal. Victorian infrastructure is an adaptable thing.

Think of it this way: for passengers, the old St. Pancras was a single-layer cake consisting of the platforms under the Barlow roof. By December, it will be a giant three-layer cake with the roof as the icing on top. Given that all this is taking place in a Grade 1 listed building, you can imagine the agonising that went on. In the end, however, the decision was taken that it was better for a 19th century station to re-emerge as a 21st century station than to remain completely in its Victorian timewarp. After all, we’ve had 40 years of that. The big new idea works very well: they have dared to cut large slots in the original floor of the Barlow shed. So when you’re down there, emerging from the underground into the shops and the Eurostar lounges, you can look right up and see the great roof seemingly 20 feet higher than it used to be. It’s a view nobody ever used to see.

Down there, you stroll through the cast-iron columns and fat brick arches of the old undercroft, revealed to public gaze for the first time. It is there because the old Midland railway directors opted to bring their railway proudly into town at high level rather than in a cutting. That in turn meant their terminus had to be built up on a plinth, which made it even more imposing. Not that the potential was spotted immediately: though it might seem obvious to use the under-platform space in this way, early studies for the revamped St. Pancras largely ignored it, crammed more platforms into the trainshed and filled it with access bridges instead. Luckily, someone noticed that this was idiotic.

They claim that the new St. Pancras will do for London what Grand Central, with its shops and restaurants, did for Manhattan. For sure there is retail therapy the size of Covent Garden market being built down there. As for Europe’s longest champagne bar at platform level – that raises a smile. You used to be able to get a stale bun there if you were lucky.

Remember: 40 years ago, few thought it was much more than a glorious throwback. But while Betjeman was rhapsodising about the gasoliers in the old hotel, architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner spotted something else. Beneath the quasi-medieval façade, he observed, lurked a very modern composition. Neither man could have guessed just how true that observation would turn out to be.

Text and some photos © Hugh Pearman. Other images courtesy of London & Continental Railways Ltd. First published in The Sunday Times, London, on September 30 2007.


The St. Pancras Station project official site:
London & Continental Railways:
Background from engineers Arup:
Rebuilding the St. Pancras Hotel: