Future Eurostar travellers will arrive in style at St Pancras, a wholly refurbished building sharing the same listed status as Canterbury Cathedral and Windsor Castle. They are likely to be as bemused as many Londoners by the extravagance of this Gothic Revival folly. "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la gare?"
As Simon Bradley points out in his concise history, St Pancras is actually a building of two parts (recently joined by a third). First came a revolutionary train shed designed by the Midland Railway's consulting engineer, William Henry Barlow, and then George Gilbert Scott's phantasmagorical red-brick Midland Hotel. Bradley almost convinces readers of its unique architectural success, though sceptics remain.
The train shed is probably the greater achievement. However, once the hotel was erected, it not only overshadowed the station, but everything else around it. Scott designed it "on so vast a scale as to rule its neighbourhood". Architects anxious to make their mark have adhered to the same strategy ever since.
Few, however, possess the energy or ambition of Scott, who completed nearly 1,000 projects , building in every county in England and Wales, except Cardiganshire, gratefully described as "Scott-free". The chapter on the origins of the Gothic Revival and its influence on Scott is particularly good, noting that while Ruskin did so much to promote Gothic Revival, he abhorred the coming of the railways with a passion.
The hotel itself was not a great success; few were in that period, as tastes changed rapidly. It had been designed for a highly stratified society; the wood in the interiors cheapened with each ascending floor: oak, walnut, teak, mahogany, ash. The pianos in the public lounges were similarly graded: grand, oblique, cottage. Staff were governed as strictly as the railway timetables. The hotel bottled its own wine and blended its own tea and coffee. The building was a world within a world, and engineered accordingly: separate chutes carried food, letters, laundry, coal and ashes.
Bradley's constant evocation of the culture of Victorian railway life is gripping and thorough. Though the hotel looked as though it belonged to some Ruritanian principality, the materials came from the counties it served: bricks from Nottingham and Loughborough, stone quarried in Leicestershire, iron fabricated in Derbyshire. Completed, the station's influence was all-pervasive: even milking times in the shires were synchronised with the timetable of goods trains arriving at St Pancras.
Railway stations were the cathedrals of the modern world, though none was supported by such an extravagant design as that of the Midland Hotel. Today another red-brick temple, the new British Library, sits alongside it, a fitting testimony to another long-standing tradition that the reading public and the railways developed side by side.
Ken Worpole's 'Last Landscapes' is published by ReaktionReuse content