Years ago, working as a transport policeman, I got to see St Pancras at some odd hours of the day and night. One day, as milk bottles clinked and London rose slowly and blearily into the pre-dawn we drove up the ramp and I strolled into the station. I don’t even remember what the job was; collecting forged five pound notes or lost property probably. It was like stepping into a cathedral. All my trips to London had been spent shuffling through the concrete of Euston and its post-War architecture. I’d trudged through Birmingham New Street for years as well, and thought all big stations were concrete, functional Soviet-era blocks. St Pancras seemed like a fairytale castle by comparison. But that wasn’t a fair reflection. The streets around Kings Cross have long suffered a reputation for drink, drugs, homelessness and prostitution. Parts of the station were derelict for years and home to feral cats. So, if not a fairytale castle, perhaps a gothic creation lifted from Poe.
Back then St Pancras seemed cavernous, immense. It appeared empty; a huge station serving the East Midlands and South Yorkshire and in need of a bigger starring role. There were turrets and tiles and bricks and ironwork specially commissioned by the architect Barlow. Now St Pancras has been renovated for trains to Paris and Nice, and new fast services to Kent; but it was so nearly lost to the wrecking balls. The poet John Betjeman was among those who worked hard to protect the old station’s facade. Click here for the BBC’s re-opening story. Betjeman’s piece is published in his Selected Works and well worth reading.
Betjeman is especially knowledgeable on the architecture. Back in those days nothing stopped the railways. The slum dwellings of Agar Town were in the way of the route. Men cleared the poor and the destitute with threats and violence and the bulldozers moved in. Thankfully, St Pancras’ renaissance seems to have been brought about without misery or bloodshed. It makes wonderful use of the space and is light, airy and buzzing with shops, bars and restaurants. Up above the concourse there is even a space for Betjeman, holding his hat in the breeze. There is a huge statue of two lovers (The Meeting Place). That is St Pancras’ crowning achievement: it puts the pleasure in travel and makes that first step feel special. You are embarking on a journey…..the possibilities are exciting and endless.
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