Know thy station; or, the various fates of three north London termini – part 2

by robertmcnicol

Greetings one and both! I hope this finds you well. St Pancras was a Christian zealot, apparently decapitated at the behest of Diocletian in 303AD. He was fourteen years old. There are three fine nineteenth century buildings that, directly or not, memorialise this headstrong lad. The station – of which more later; St Pancras new church (built, anachronistically, in the supposed Greek renaissance style, fashionable in the early 19th Century); and the old church (the fabric of which is mostly newer than the new church. Natch), in the churchyard of which stands Sir John Soane’s memorial to his wife and in which Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin plotted their elopement. And they say romance is dead. Or something.

Pancras means, literally, “the one that holds everything”, and the station that bears this martyr’s name tries to do precisely that. “fine” burgers, “natural” remedies, “authentic” fossil (apparently that’s a distinctive modern vintage global lifestyle company specialising in consumer fashion accessories). You can even go to somewhere that helps you to “transform daily routines into the special rituals they once were”; going to the toilet never sounded so appealing. You can see a giant statue of two people melodramatically kissing, a much smaller statue of that wonderful old curmudgeon Sir John Betjemen, and – presumably for the next year or so – some Olympic-sized rings. If you’re really unlucky you might get to hear someone as arse-crushingly anodyne as Ed Sheeran whipping a crowd of international commuters into a frenzy of bedraggled bemusement as part of the “station sessions” series of unfortunate concerts.

And of course you can hop on a train and travel at enormous speed to a small town they call Paris, without even stopping at the sea. Which – I will happily grant you – is no mean thing.

Let us trip downstairs, away from the champagne bar and the swanky restaurant, which so clearly indicate that upstairs is Not For Me. What lurks in the undergrowth?

Downstairs, trainlife becomes more prosaic, the muted beiges and greys of anywhereville, the comforting, uncosy array of pseudo-swanky chain outlets lines one wall, a forest of fearsome columns lurking opposite.

What’s down there? I was too chicken to find out; those vacant supports disturbed me.

Downstairs it’s all clutter and busyness; the secrets of international travel – that it needs to be subsidised by commerce, that it’s a serious hassle – become clear. Not, of course, quite as much of a hassle as the station makes domestic train travel. You have to walk the entire length of St Pancras – over 200 metres – before you even reach the domestic part of the station. This continues the humdrum aesthetic of the main station’s undercroft. Here we get shiny new concrete with shiny new striplights in a space infinitely more horrible than Euston ever could be.

And the kind, thoughtful architects have built this ceiling at a tender, low level; none of the soaring space-age flights of Eusonian fancy here. Nice new claustrophobia – that’s what the people want from their stations.

This strange space, hidden directly behind the end of Barlow‘s train shed, is a sharp slap in the face to all that romance and whimsy upstairs. NO!! it screams, TRAIN TRAVEL IS SOMETHING YOU DO BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO!! STOP BEING SUCH A SAP AND GET YOUR SORRY BACKSIDE THROUGH THE BARRIER!!

Let’s go back upstairs, let’s talk about Barlow’s shed. This is, no doubt, an incredibly impressive structure. The span was, at the time, the largest unsupported roof anywhere. And its polite, sky blue repainting sure looks pretty –  though I see Quakerish simplicity in this colour; it does little to reflect the high-power business of shunting trains.

And I’m not convinced that, aesthetically, this is a particularly interesting space. It seems to me that it lacks any emphasis – the point of the arch draws the eye up, but it has none of the sheer verticality of the gothic churches. With no supports, and such a broad end, it offers little perspectival delight. And the width, whilst we know it to be impressive, is somehow lost.

No, for the real architectural drama, the great work, we need to go outside.

George Gilbert Scott’s design for the Midland Grand was exuberant, expressive and  – most of all – expensive. The hotel was one of the finest in London, though others quickly overtook it. The building was used as – what else? – offices for British Rail, before falling into disrepair. Thanks to Betjemen’s campaigning ways, it was listed toward the end of the Sixties and saved from demolition. Following its restoration, we can see it for what it always was: a crass, fanciful, opulent, overblown slab of Victorian whimsy – and one of London’s most wonderful buildings.

Scott’s Gothic building is not the pure Venetian revivalism that Ruskin might have approved of – though it certainly has oodles of that. This is, though, a thoroughly European building – the roof, with its double tier of dormers, takes us to Paris; the spires and pinnacles are transported from Bavaria, perhaps; the stepped gable ends from the low countries.

Scott’s tasted were eclectic, and this astonishing building reflects his brilliance.

It seems quite clear, particularly given the clock tower, that here is Scott’s vivacious riposte to the palace of Westminster, completed a mere five years earlier. This, Scott seems to be saying, is how you really do Gothic. Is it better than Barry and Pugin’s building? Yes. On the outside, anyhow.

Of course, there remain questions over the restoration of the building – for a restoration this is; little conservation here. No doubt many splendours have been uncovered or recreated, though a lot of the internal structure has been altered to make way for mod cons and super-swanky lofts. You and I paid for the exterior work in the 1990s through our friends at English Heritage and British Rail, which I am mighty pleased about. And I suppose it seems churlish to ask whether the interiors have retained the spirit of their original design, given that this building is once again what it was designed to be – an upmarket hotel (called, ridiculously, “Renaissance”, IT’S NEO-GOTHIC, you numbnuts!) for rich people. A simple tour will set you back twenty quid.

It is right and proper to celebrate this station’s rejuvenation. The various campaigns, the listing process and the work of historians, conservationists and other experts has meant that this magnificent structure (and I mean the train shed too) has been kept – for the nation, as they say about art. Yet whilst it is right to celebrate this building’s continued existence, I think it’s perfectly correct to also mourn the damage done, even if it was unavoidable.

Maybe it’s the times we live in, but I feel immeasurably disheartened by this place. I have this worry, that I cannot shake, that in twenty years time we will look back at the revamped St Pancras with an incredulity, a distain for the sleek moderniste vulgarity of the place. That those acres of glass barriers that separate the trains from us mere mortals will be greening and cracked, the clock and whizzy lifts permanently out of order, the creamy tracery smudged and heavy in its mortar, the soaring girders having sloughed off their paintwork and Betjeman, alone, standing unweathered in a dingy hall. I hope I’m wrong.

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