St Pancras back on track: An idea above its station

The neglect of St Pancras has been little short of a national disgrace. But yesterday, as a Eurostar train pulled in for the first time, its revival as a national treasure was complete. Cahal Milmo reports

When Sir John Betjeman began his battle to save St Pancras station from demolition in 1962 he replied to the bureaucrats that it would be a criminal folly to destroy a building whose name conjured up wondrous images of architecture and light in the mind of every Londoner.

The railway-loving poet laureate insisted that the neo-Gothic splendour of the hotel forming the station's frontage and the giant span of the arch designed by the Victorian railway engineer William Barlow as the terminus for the steam trains of the Midland Railway had a place in the heart of anyone who lived in the capital city.

Betjeman, who was battling plans to redevelop the central London station as an office block, wrote: "What he sees in his mind's eye is that cluster of towers and pinnacles seen from Pentonville Hill and outlined against a foggy sunset, and the great arc of Barlow's train shed gaping to devour incoming engines, and the sudden burst of exuberant Gothic of the hotel seen from gloomy Judd Street."

The poet's campaign saved one of London's grandest structures from the wrecking ball and led to it being listed as a Grade-I monument with the same level of protection as Canterbury Cathedral and Windsor Castle.

But the victory did little to reverse the station's inexorable decline from one of Victorian Britain's most glamorous and awe-inspiring destinations to a sad relic of imperial grandeur inhabited by drug dealers and prostitutes. The nadir of this descent into dilapidation came in 1978 when a cash-strapped British Rail sold the huge station clock hanging above the platforms to an American collector for £250,000. Even this attempt to liquidate the treasures of St Pancras, first opened in 1868, was doomed – the clock fell the last few metres and smashed into thousands of pieces on a floor where daylight from Barlow's glass roof was blocked by decades of paint and patched repairs. The pieces of the clock were sold for £25 to a retiring train driver.

But Betjeman's faith in the desire of a silent majority to hold on to its landmark terminus was not misplaced. At 11.47am yesterday a gleaming Eurostar train from Paris pulled in to the no-less pristine platform seven of the newly re-christened St Pancras International, bathed in light from the station roof painstakingly re-glazed as part of a three-year renovation.

Some 60 million bricks, 18,000 panes of self-cleaning glass, 300,000 new Welsh slate tiles and £800m later, St Pancras has been reborn as a temple to the efficiency, majesty and eye-watering expense of state-of-the art railways. The new station, which will finally open to the public in November, will cater for 50 million passengers a year, making it one of the busiest in Europe, as well as boasting such accoutrements as the world's longest champagne bar, a farmers' market and 9m bronze statue of a couple in thoughtful embrace.

As the terminus for Eurostar services to the Continent, it will be the jewel in the crown of London and Continental Railways (LCR), the company set up to run the cross-Channel rail link which yesterday celebrated its newly acquired high-speed prowess by setting a new record for the journey from Paris to London.

The feat was just one of myriad echoes that link the resurrection of the 21st-century St Pancras with its 19th-century original, from the engineering challenges of creating a building intended to be as symbolic as it was practical, to the desire to fill it with the best technology and facilities of the age.

Just as the completion of the high-speed line between London and Paris was marked with a record-breaking journey yesterday, so the opening of new terminus of the Midland Railway Company on 1 October 1868 was not allowed to pass without the making of some history. The first train to leave St Pancras that day, an express bound for Manchester, ran non-stop from Kentish Town to Leicester – at 97 miles then the longest uninterrupted run for a train in the world.

The journey was the culmination of a long-standing desire by the managers of the Midland Railway, who had been making vast sums since the early 1850s by freighting the people and produce of the industrial cities, to make their mark on the capital. The company, which had been forced to share the adjoining Euston and King's Cross stations owned by rival operators, quietly began buying large portions of the parish of St Pancras in 1861. With brutal efficiency, the owners of slum developments such as Agar Town were paid £19,500 for their land on the triangle chosen for the new station. A further £200 was handed over to expel the tenants without compensation. Among those who were brought in to oversee the removal of bodies from a church and graveyard that stood in the way of the development was a young apprentice architect called Thomas Hardy, who quickly gave up his job and returned to Dorset to write novels.

In 1865, managers eschewed the services of the likes of Brunel and turned to their own chief engineer, William Henry Barlow, to produce the design for the station itself. A gifted technician and architect of genius, Barlow overcame the problem of trains arriving into the new terminus down a slope created by a bridge over the Regent's Canal – and thus unable to stop in emergencies – by raising the level of the platforms 18ft above street level. In order to achieve this, Barlow ordered 850 iron columns, apparently hardened by being immersed in horse urine and capable of bearing 55 tons, to be driven into the foundations to create an subterranean "under croft" and a lasting source of income for his employees. The result is that St Pancras was built on beer.

The master engineer ordered the gap between each column to correspond exactly with the width of three barrels of ale from Burton-upon-Trent to allow the storage of the hundreds of gallons of bitter brought daily to London on the Midland Railway's trains. The cellar space below the tracks was rented to brewers seeking to slake the thirst of Londoners.

Above ground, Barlow designed a single-span roof measuring 243ft to be bolted into his iron columns. The result was the largest indoor space in the world and what remains to this day the largest single span station in Britain, achieving a cathedral-like tribute to the industrial age which one newspaper at the time declared "miraculous". The result was also as strong as it was impressive – the detonation of two Doodlebug flying bombs in the station during the Second World War created only minor damage.

The building for which St Pancras is best known – the neo-Gothic wedding cake of the Midland Grand Hotel that forms the station's facade – did not begin construction work until the year the trains started running and was not finished until 1873.

But the consensus at the time was that it was worth the wait. A competition to design the hotel was won by one of the most prolific architects of the high Victorian era, George Gilbert Scott, a devotee of the gothic splendour of medieval cathedrals who saw ornament as a nod towards Godliness and thus adorned his buildings with as many tributes to the 16th-century cloth halls of Flanders and the great churches of France as he could.

His design fulfilled the ambition of the directors of the Midland Railway to announce their arrival in the capital with a building that overshadowed and dwarfed the stations of its rivals. In the words of its architect, the hotel was to be "on so vast a scale as to rule its neighbourhood, instead of being governed by it".

The ambition for the interior of the 300-room hotel was no less lavish. The fittings were of the highest standard while the building boasted a range of cutting-edge innovations such as a lift, revolving doors, an iron central staircase and a network of chutes for everything from ash to dirty laundry. It rapidly became one of the most sought-after billets in London.

Sadly, the supremacy of the terminus as a meeting and departure point for the great and the good was short-lived. The hotel rapidly fell foul of the decision to trim budgets by not installing sanitary plumbing for bathrooms and a lack of central heating. By 1935 it had closed, being considered too outmoded and expensive to run.

Unsurprisingly, those behind the new St Pancras International insist it will not fall foul of any such shortcomings in vision or execution. As the inheritors of Betjeman's hard-won campaign to preserve the building, LCR has had to go to considerable measures to comply with renovation standards enforced by English Heritage. And just as Barlow and Gilbert Scott's paymasters were seeking to maximise the economic return from their investments, so too are LCR. When the first Eurostar passengers depart for Brussels, Paris and further afield in November, they will have no fewer than 67 places to shop, eat and drink. The contribution of Betjeman to the station's survival is recognised in the shape of a pub which will bear his name.

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