There was a time when I would have done almost anything to avoid being in or around a UK train station. As a regular commuter I would dread the daily grind of squeezing onto packed trains. The lack of fresh air, heat, claustrophobia, smell of stale sweat and second hand takeaways were always fresh in my mind. Stations were mostly something to be negotiated and got through as quickly as possible.
Despite my antipathy towards localised commuter train travel, I had been lucky enough to enjoy some wonderful train journeys on some of my holiday travels overseas. From these experiences, a part of me grew to understand that excitement of being able to sit back and watch the world go by. On these journeys, I felt the anticipation of discovering a new town, languished in the lack of responsibility (beyond being on time for my train and having my ticket ready for checking) and loved taking time to observe the people around me – wondering where they were from, who they were and where they were travelling to.
If I had not allowed my experiences on my daily commute to cloud my opinion of train travel, I might have taken time to look around St Pancras and Kings Cross Stations a few years ago. So I decided to put my negative commuting experiences behind me for a day. With the aim of recapturing some of the excitement/romance of my holiday train train travel – without jumping on a train – and the promise of some stunning architecture, I decided to take a leisurely look around these stations just a few days ago.
Exploring St Pancras Station
On a cold, wet Saturday, St Pancras station was busy and bustling with people with dripping umbrellas but taking my eyes away from the crowd and looking up I was confronted with an amazing view of the station roof. The photos below do not do it justice and only show sections of this so you really need to go there to see it for yourself.
The station Clock
The roof is made up of a series of wrought iron ribs resulting in a space 100ft high, 240ft wide and 700ft long. When the station was opened on a wave of Victorian optimism in 1868, this was the largest single spanned roof in the world and its design was copied across the world. It is said to be the inspiration for the design of Grand Central Station in New York.
The construction project chief engineer was William Henry Barlow (responsible for the design of the train shed and overall layout of the site) and the architect responsible for the attached Midland Grand Hotel (now called The St Pancras Renaissance) was George Gilbert Scott. The station’s name, which it shares with the nearby St Pancras neighbourhood, originates from the fourth-century Christian boy martyr Pancras of Rome who was beheaded by the Roman Emperor Diocleation in 304 AD for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.
In its early days, St Pancras station mainly received commodities such as coal, milk, fish and potatoes. Three beer trains per day also arrived at St Pancras from Burton-on-Trent. The wagons containing the beer were lowered from platform level by hydraulic lift, onto tracks and into the main storage area of the undercroft. Services eventually expanded to include passenger rail travel to major cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Bradford. The first Pullman service in the UK – with a restaurant car and sleeping compartments – left the station in 1874 to Bedford and by 1878 was running all the way to Wick in Northern Scotland.
At the time of my visit, in the on-platform bar, couples sat enjoying a nicely chilled pre-journey glass or two of Champagne with a view down towards the station clock (a copy of the original which was broken into thousands of pieces upon removal in the 1970s) and the imposing 20 tonne Paul Day bronze statue known as ‘The Meeting Place’.
The Meeting Place statue – shown above – cost £1 million and aims to reflect the romantic nature of train travel by reminding travellers of the iconic scene from the classic film ‘Brief Encounter’.
The bronze reliefs (some of which are shown below) carved under the main Meeting Place figures perhaps evoke darker feelings associated with travel and are definately worth close viewing.
I wondered about the lives of the people around me ready to board the trains to international destinations of romance such as a City of Love – Paris or of culture such as Brussels. Were they couples on long planned St Valentine’s weekend breaks or lovers grabbing the chance of a few days together? Whatever the answer, it would seem likely that most of these trips were planned in advance.
Chance meetings of the type depicted by ‘Brief Encounter’ would perhaps be more likely to be ignited in a run of the mill commuter/rail traveller type station such as St Pancras’s near neighbour Kings Cross and I decided to make my way over to absorb the atmosphere of this terminal. However, not before I had had a chance to pay homage to one of Middlesex’s loyal supporters poet Sir John Betjeman (see poem ‘Middlesex’) whose statue (by Martin Jennings) is another dominant feature of the St Pancras Station concourse.
The above statue depicts him walking into the new station for the first time. He is looking up towards the roof of the train shed, leaning back and holding onto his hat, his coat tails billowing out behind him. Around him discs carved with some of his writings are displayed at floor level.
St Pancras Station was bombed during both World Wars 1 and 2. The station became run down in the post war years being threatened with closure during 1921 and 1966. By the 1960s, as road transportation became a more popular way to transport goods and with the review of the nation’s rail network by Dr Beeching (resulting in closure of many lines), St Pancras’s future was uncertain.
Following campaigns by John Betjeman, historian Niklaus Pevsner and Jane Hughes Fawcett (of the Victorian Society), the station eventually became grade 1 listed in November 1967. It seems unlikely that St Pancras would have survived without the huge efforts of these people to fight its corner.
Although this neo-Gothic gem had been saved for future generations to admire, the building always seemed slightly unloved in the 1970s/80s. Hope for a positive future for the building arrived in the early 90s with the opening of the Channel Tunnel. Originally trains were only able to reach their full speed on the French side. In order to develop a high speed line in the UK a new terminus needed to be found. The obvious solution lay in redeveloping St Pancras as an international transport hub.
During redevelopment Barlow’s original train shed roof was restored to its full glory and the iron girders stripped and repainted in their original pale blue. An additional train shed to the rear of Barlow’s original was designed by Foster & Partners. New Oak doors were made for the main entrances and the west wall of the station was rebuilt using 16 million bricks manufactured identically to the originals. St Pancras was reopened in November 2007.
Interestingly, for such a busy place, St Pancras International’s roof is home to several beehives which are owned by Fortnum and Mason who opened their first spin-off store in 300 years at the station in 2013. It is said that the honey is “a lovely pale, toffee colour with a soft consistency”.
Moving downstairs to the lower concourse, I met this lively gentleman clearly enjoying use of the station piano and chatting to fellow rail travellers and visitors. I was reminded that travelling through an international station such as St Pancras is a great opportunity to meet people from around the world for conversation and friendship. The pianos – which have been in the station since 2012 – are open for anyone to play. Apparently, one – a Yamaha – was donated by Sir Elton John in Spring 2016 who gave an impromptu performance during the morning rush hour – though I do not know if the piano shown is the one he donated.
Kings Cross Station
Queen Victoria herself was one of the first passengers to depart from here for Scotland in 1851. The architect, Lewis Cubitt was responsible for the detailed design for this station and it officially opened with just 2 platforms in 1852.
This building was also redeveloped in recent times and the semi-circular departures Concourse (designed by John McAslan and built by Vinci) – shown below – was opened in time for the Olympics in 2012 with the original Victorian entrance restored and opened in 2013.
Since redevelopment the station can handle increased passenger flows and provides greater integration between the intercity, suburban and underground sections. The roof (shown in the photos above) is said to be the longest single-span station structure in Europe. The semi-circular structure has a radius of 59 yards (54 m) and more than 2,000 triangular roof panels, half of which are glass.
Kings Cross Station gives the impression of being a much busier and more chaotic place than St Pancras. I had been hoping to catch a glimpse of weepy lovers’ departures or brief encounters for this St Valentine’s Day article but found that much of the action seemed to be centred about the excited crowds queuing to visit the Harry Potter Shop at Platform 9 ¾. Of course, the actual platform 9 ¾ exists only in the fiction of Harry Potter creator J K Rowling being the platform that students of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry boarded the train to get to their school in the north of Scotland. However, there is a sign for the platform in honour of the stories shown left.
Planning A Visit To St Pancras/Kings Cross Stations
Whilst there is no museum to visit specifically on the stations’ history, there are information boards giving a short history of St Pancras station in the upper concourse situated close to The Meeting Place and John Betjeman statues. Architecturally both St Pancras and King’s Cross are certainly impressive and definately worth a look around for half an hour to an hour (or more if you are a railway enthusiast). There are also many eating/drinking places in both stations if you are in need of refreshment. I have listed below some other attractions that are not too far away that you could also combine with your visit.
Watch the following clip to find out more about the brewing history of St Pancras Station:-
Take a walk through the King’s Cross Station of the 1950s:-
Learn more by visiting:-
St Pancras Station, Euston Rd, Kings Cross, London N1C 4QP
The Canal Museum is very close to St Pancras and a great place to learn about the history of the waterways of the surrounding area and their importance to the ice industry.
Address: 12-13 New Wharf Rd, London N1 9RT
The London Transport Museum, in Covent Garden, is also a good option for anyone interested in the history and development of the capital’s transport system.
Other attractions also close by:–
The British Museum – A huge collection of world art and artefacts. Free admission.
The British Library – The national library of the United Kingdom and the second largest library in the world by number of items catalogued. The library has a regular exhibition areas and other exhibitions on an ongoing basis through the year.