24-Hour Room Service: The St Pancras Renaissance, London
A grand plan: the hotel at the end of a long journey
Saturday 30 April 2011
If you've seen it, you'll know what I mean when I say the St Pancras hotel needs no introduction. It's one of those Victorian monsters that grabs you by the lapels, slaps you round the face and screams "Gothic revival". I remember the first time I stumbled onto the Euston Road and found this derelict Bluebeard's Castle looming out of the darkness. Like some crazed outpatient from architecture school, I asked a passer-by what it was. "Oh, just a disused train station," they said. "It's where British Rail store their spoons." Spoons!
That was 10 years ago. This coming Thursday, thanks to a £200m restoration, the former Midland Grand Hotel officially reopens as a luxury hotel, the retro face of Eurostar's sparkling new terminal. It's not all hotel though – 67 multi-million pound apartments occupy it from the second floor up. But the ground and first floors are the centrepiece of a five-star Marriott Renaissance. A new redbrick block has been discreetly built to the west of the train concourse, which houses the bulk of the 245 bedrooms.
The story of the St Pancras is one of superlatives and extremes. It's so extraordinary it could be made into a film, though the cast would be a bit weird, starring John Betjeman and the Spice Girls. It begins in the 1860s, when Victorian expansionism was in full swing. Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary, had turned down Gilbert George Scott's designs for a Gothic Foreign Office. But when the builders of the new Midland Railway line announced a competition to design a hotel at its terminus, Scott fished out his plans and resubmitted them. Industrialists, being more interested in showing off than civil servants, were thrilled, and Scott won.
Sadly, the glory days were short-lived. Though it offered the first room in the world where women could smoke in public and the first public revolving door, it was eclipsed when the 20th century brought a new wave of luxury hotels, such as The Savoy and The Dorchester, which boasted electric lifts and hot running water (the Midland Grand had only eight bathrooms). The hotel closed in 1935 and was used as office space. By the 1960s, the building was an empty white elephant; earmarked for demolition.
The poet John Betjeman said St Pancras was "too beautiful and too romantic to survive", but after a long campaign he saved it for the nation. Again it was requisitioned as office space but fell into disrepair and lay empty until the Manhattan Loft Company bought it six years ago.
Curiously, the Spice Girls filmed the video for "Wannabe" on its main staircase – which emerges as one of the highlights of the six-year restoration, its gold leaf and heritage red and green fleur-de-lis stencils shining brilliantly once again. Also impressive is the glazed entrance lobby, housed in what used to be the taxi rank. The wood-panelled ticketing office is now a lively bar and brasserie, which links the hotel to the train concourse. A Marcus Wareing restaurant will open on Thursday, along with a spa, when the red ribbon is cut at the grand opening. For architectural historians and train buffs, there are few more exciting places to stay; the question is whether they can afford it.
As the terminus for Eurostar to Paris and Brussels, East Midlands Trains to Derby and Sheffield and the high-speed Javelin services to Kent, St Pancras is ideally located for travellers passing through town. It boasts a spacious conference centre, making it a good venue for business meetings for British as well as European firms. But no matter how impressive the architecture, this is still King's Cross – and the "wrong" side of the six-lane Euston Road. With forthright competition from London's other great five-star hotels, ranging from the Park Lane favourites to the re-born Savoy, the moneyed elite are spoiled for choice.
It is difficult to imagine that the lavish Royal suite with its £46,000 wallpaper, copied from an original panel found underneath a mirror, will be occupied every night at the rack rate of £12,000 per night.
The 207 rooms in Barlow House certainly have a corporate feel. The best options are the 38 rooms in the main building, called the Chambers Club.
Arranged along either side of a corridor, they are designed to be wide enough to accommodate two passing Victorian women wearing full ball gowns and bustles. Because they're on the first floor, all rooms are double height, which for the smaller ones can create the effect of being in a Victorian lavatory. However, the space has been cleverly broken up by the installation of a room within the room, for the bathroom. These are classically decorated in simple creams with silver fittings and clad in the most beautiful Carrara marble, streaked black and white like Roquefort. The bedroom walls are a muted shade of dove grey, with heavy curtains covering the original stone-mullioned windows. A butler is permanently stationed outside or you can make use of a lounge on the ground floor which serves light meals and drinks, including an electronic wine dispenser.
If you'd rather stay in your room, the modern facilities of a luxury hotel – plasma TVs and 24-hour room service – are there, plus free minibars in the Chambers rooms. Although marginally smaller, it's worth asking for a room on the concourse side, since the Eurostar trains pull right up to your window. This is the best in-house entertainment: to sit in a fluffy dressing gown at your window, watching the trains come and go to Paris. Betjeman was right: St Pancras is beautiful and romantic – let's hope it can survive this time.
St Pancras Renaissance Euston Road, London NW1 2AR (020-7841 3540; marriott.co.uk).
Double rooms start at £360 including breakfast, rising to £600 in the Chambers
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